By Millicent Zighe
A crippled justice system is fueling the human rights crisis in Burundi, a new report by a rights research group has claimed.
Interference from the ruling party CNDD-FDD has left the once independent court system in shambles as President Pierre Nkurunzinza and his allies continue to influence decision making, particularly for political sensitive cases, according to a new report by Burundi Human Rights Initiative.
Intimidation and threats such as demotions or transfer to distant places have reduced judges and prosecutors to mere puppets with no control whatsoever over court matters. In one particular incident, a judge was redeployed three times after failing to comply with the state agents’ orders.
“In theory there is separation of powers but not in practice. Magistrates are all controlled by the government…independence exists on paper only,” said an official working in the prosecutor’s office.
Sources revealed the state agents or ruling officials often order security and the Imbonerakure militia group to arrest people illegally. In many instances no arrest warrants are issued or proof that the victims have committed a recognizable offence. Fearing to defy the government authorities’ orders, the prosecutor charges the individuals. Politically sensitive cases are always allocated to judges perceived to be allies of the ruling party making it easy for the final verdict to be rendered in their favour. The report notes that this happens in cases where defendants are suspected to be members of the opposition. One prosecutor narrated to the rights group how he was ordered to make arrests on people who were innocent. He explained he was tired of receiving calls from ‘generals’.
“If someone is accused of endangering internal state security or participation in armed groups….and if the judges decide to release that person for lack of evidence and acquit them, they will be accused of making the Government security strategy fail. Judges want to avoid this so they have to keep people in prison,” said a lawyer.
“I know cases where this has happened…..if someone who was detained by the intelligence service is brought before the prosecutor’s office, the officials have instructions that whatever evidence exists or doesn’t exist, and whatever the detainee says when they are questioned they can’t be released,” he added.
Orders have been issued to judges not to arrest members of the Imbonerakure- the group responsible for committing human rights violations including murder, rape and torture. In some cases, Judges are pressured to release or drop charges against them. In an attempt to restore public trust, four alleged Imbonerakure members were recently sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of CNL member Gregoire Nsavyumwami. Nonetheless majority of the members still continue to be shielded from justice and are rarely held accountable for their actions.
A number of judges have also gone down under a cloud of damaging corruption allegations. Lack of economic independence has forced judges to make decisions solely based on money. Some take bribes to tamper with cases involving powerful political figures. Burundi Minister of Justice Aimée Laurentine Kanyana tough warning to judges has done little to dampen the situation. On September 2019, Kanyana promised to take action against all corrupt judges by punishing or firing them. However, to date nothing has been done. Burundi judges are among the worst paid in the world.
Critics believe impunity in the justice system is as a result of biased recruitment procedures. Many feel the process is flawed in that the top court jobs are usually given to Nkurunzinza’s allies’ as a token of appreciation for their loyalty. “There are no objective criteria for appointment or promotions, it all depends on the individuals’ relations with the CNDD-FDD,” said a prominent lawyer. The independence has further weakened after the judges professional union was disbanded following wrangles fueled by the ruling Government.