By Waceke Njoroge
Amnesty International has started an online campaign to get jailed Burundi lawyer Tony Germain Nkina released.
The organisation’s Urgent Action 92.21 aims to have the lawyer, whom it insists is being persecuted because of his association with human rights organisations, freed immediately and unconditionally.
Nkina was arrested on October 13, 2020 while visiting a client in Kabarore village in Kayanza, northern Burundi, to advise him on a land dispute. He was charged with collaborating with rebels who had attacked Burundi and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in June 2021. He was also fined one million Burundian francs.
The lawyer happened to be in the area at a time of tension after an armed group identified as RED-Tabara struck, killing and abducting several people in the province. He was accused of working with the group. He was also accused of travelling to Rwanda to pass information to Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the president of Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues – APRODH (Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons) and RED-Tabara. The prosecutor did not provide any evidence to support these allegations.
Amnesty International describes its Urgent Action programme as “designed to provide a quick response to situations of urgency involving prisoners, detainees, and other victims or potential victims of human rights abuses who may be in life-threatening situations.”
When it launches an Urgent Action, it encourages its community of volunteers to flood the mailboxes, inboxes, phones, and social media of authorities to get action on a person in imminent danger of human rights violations.
In the case of the Urgent Action for the release of lawyer Nkina, volunteers have been urged to write their own letters or use a sample of a letter Amnesty International has written to Burundi Justice Minister Jeanine Nibizi and the country’s ambassador in Washington DC, Jean de Dieu Ndikumana, urging the officials to aid in his release.
The volunteers have also been encouraged to email, fax, call, or tweet the officials, and report the measures they have taken before the expiry of the Urgent Action on October 15, 2021.
Prior to his arrest, Nkina was APRODH’s representative in Kayanza before the government suspended the organisation in 2015. During that year, the authorities carried out a nationwide crackdown on all civil society organisations that opposed President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term.
Burundi has over the years been in the spotlight for human rights violations because many journalists and members of civil society suspected to oppose the government were disappeared or killed. Civil society groups and media organisations were targeted in the government’s repression campaign of 2015. They were suspended, and human rights defenders and journalists fled into exile to escape threats to their lives.
Human rights activists have been arrested for their advocacy work. Germain Rukuki was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 32 years in prison on charges related to his human rights work, but was released after winning an appeal in June 2021. The Burundian government has continued to view human rights work with suspicion despite the change in regime after President Nkurunziza died in 2020.
Some 12 human rights defenders and journalists were among a group of 34 people sentenced in absentia to life in prison in June 2020 on accusations of involvement in an attempted coup in May 2015. The Supreme Court judgment was not made public until February 2021.
Arrest or detention as punishment for the peaceful exercise of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, is arbitrary and violates the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to both of which Burundi is a state party. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that those detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights must be released.