Peace

Burundi-Watchers See Erosion of Human Rights and Civic Freedoms

The bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s when Burundi was widely considered a police state may be making a comeback.Some 300,000 people lost their lives in the country’s civil war from the 1990s to 2003, which broke out following the death of the country’s first democratically elected president.Human rights defenders and journalists are now routinely smeared as enemies of the state.According to a recent report by an East African rights group: “Human rights defenders in Burundi are operating in one of the most restrictive and hostile environments in East Africa as evidenced by an alarming pattern of harassment, intimidation, threats and legislative reforms.” Public gatherings have been banned, members of the opposition are attacked. Violence is escalating in the run up to the June 2015 elections, the East and Horn of Africa defenders project observed.Even group jogging, a popular Burundian hobby that officials now say leads to uprisings, has been banned.A tiny dot wedged between Tanzania to the south and east, and Rwanda to the north, the DRC to the west, Burundi was once a battleground between Hutus and Tutsis, much like Rwanda. The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was a Hutu rebel leader.The most contentious issue to date is whether the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, will try for a third term – an apparent violation of the constitution.A prominent rights activist, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, fears that a militarized youth wing of the ruling party is responsible for extrajudicial killings including beheadings.An international spotlight was drawn to Burundi in September with the murder of three Italian nuns at their convent in Bujumbura. A radio journalist, Bob Rugurika, broadcast the purposed confession of a man claiming to be one of the killers.Authorities detained Rugurika and then charged him with complicity in the murders and disclosing confidential information about the case.His release last month prompted huge rallies of support. Hundreds of people crammed into dozens of cars and motorbikes followed Mr Rugurika after being released from prison some 30 miles away, the AFP news agency reported.“I have no words to thank the Burundian population," Mr Rugurika said in a radio broadcast. "Thanks to your support, your commitment... I'm free at last."A spotlight has again been drawn to Burundi with the late night prison breakout this week of the president’s political rival, Hussein Radjabu. A former ally of the current president, he was regarded as Burundi’s most powerful man until his arrest in 2007.Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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