By Waceke Njoroge
The rule of law has progressively deteriorated and violation of human rights, though improved in some cases, remains present despite a new regime in Burundi, the UN-appointed commission of inquiry has said.
According to the commission’s report, state officials and other groups affiliated to the government have continued to commit serious human rights violations since President Évariste Ndayishimiye took power.
The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi singled out members of the Imbonerakure, which it accused of acting with the acquiescence of the authorities or even at their instigation. The militia group is affiliated to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD.
It said that despite the new president’s pledge to address the situation in the country after years of violent repression, crimes including arbitrary detention and execution; torture and intimidation have not stopped. President Ndayishimiye pledged to end repression when he came to power in 2020 following the sudden death of former President Pierre Nkurunziza.
“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated since President Ndayishimiye took office in June last year,” the commission chairman, Doudou Diene, told journalists in Geneva when the report was released in September 2021, prior to its presentation before the UN Human Rights Council.
Agents of the National Intelligence Service, placed under the direct responsibility of President Ndayishimiye, were the main perpetrators of executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and torture in connection with armed attacks and have continued to operate with absolute impunity. Police officers of the Rapid Mobile Intervention Group and members of the Imbonerakure were also involved in some of the cases of execution, arrest, and torture, the report said.
Many security officers and other officials linked to the ruling party continued to go unpunished for their crimes. The Imbonerakure youth league and other security agents, whose brutality had been documented in the commission’s previous reports, continued to act with impunity. Members of these groups, who are known to be the main perpetrators of violations, continued to enjoy widespread impunity for their actions, as has been the case since 2015, the commission said.
Incidents of insecurity were reported to be on the raise since August 2020. There were armed clashes and exchanges of gunfire between members of the security forces, sometimes supported by the Imbonerakure, and armed groups that are often unidentified. This has put the lives of civilians at risk and they often end up being casualties of these incidents.
On May 9 and June 26, 2021, several vehicles were attacked, with their occupants riddled with machine gun fire and set on fire on the road between Gitega and Bujumbura. Grenades were launched into a crowd in Bujumbura on May 25, 2021. The lack of follow-up by the security agencies and the justice system demonstrates grave miscarriage of justice and human rights violations, the commission said.
The Burundian authorities have failed to publish these incidents officially as “criminal acts”, instead referring to them as “acts of terrorism”. The perpetrators are suspected to be mostly members of the opposition Congrès National pour la Liberté (CNL). Members of the party have become victims of enforced disappearances after being taken in for questioning. Some of them reappeared in prison weeks later, often after being tortured by intelligence agents.
Returnees from refugee camps, especially in Tanzania, have not been spared either, and have been mistreated by members of the Imbonerakure. Those who were politically active in the past have been accused of collaborating with armed groups, leading to their arrest, detention, and torture.
Impunity has led to blatant disregard for human life or even the law as corpses have regularly been found in public areas. Local authorities usually bury them without trying to identify them or investigate the cause of death and possible perpetrators even though most of the bodies show signs of violent death. According to Iteka League, the oldest recognised human rights organisation in Burundi, 554 people, including 118 women, were reportedly killed during President Ndayishimiye’s first year in power. Some 250 of the bodies were found in public areas.
The commission accused the authorities of absconding their duty to investigate and apprehend suspects or perpetrators. Due to this general negligence of the law, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between crimes and human rights violations committed by state agents or the Imbonerakure, and cases constituting ordinary criminal offences such as murders linked to land or family disputes.
The judicial system has not made any notable progress in the fight against impunity, the report said. Police officers and military personnel have been convicted of ordinary offences, which were often committed under the influence of alcohol. Additionally, members of the Imbonerakure have been arrested on several occasions for serious violations, but many of them were later released and/or “punished” internally.
The report noted that there were persistent dysfunctions in the justice system, including corruption, influence peddling, and interference by various authorities and CNDD-FDD members. Non-compliance with legal procedures and deadlines, failure to enforce judicial decisions, in particular release orders, and inertia in certain proceedings continue to plague the system.
The rule of law has been greatly undermined, especially by leaders and those called to uphold it. Ministers have openly disregarded the call by the president for leaders to declare their wealth and assets. However, the president’s ambivalence has not helped to resolve the problem. Initially, he insisted that this should be done without delay but later stated that such declarations were neither “realistic nor feasible”.
As much as these crimes are committed by groups or militias, individual responsibility cannot be ignored or underscored, the report said, and urged the Burundian government to ensure that the perpetrators behind the crimes are charged in order to deter the groups and militias.
The commission said it had updated its list of alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity, which is confidential in order to protect its sources and respect the presumption of innocence.