Abductions, Killings, Spread Fear in Burundi
Feb 25, Nairobi: The Burundian authorities are targeting perceived opponents with increased brutality. Government forces are killing, abducting, torturing, and arbitrarily arresting scores of people at an alarming rate.
As the capital, Bujumbura, descends into new levels of lawlessness, patterns of human rights abuses have shifted. Whereas dead bodies on the streets of Bujumbura were a daily occurrence in the second half of 2015, many abuses are now taking place under the radar, with security forces secretly taking people away and refusing to account for them.
Security forces have tortured or ill-treated suspected opponents so severely during arrests or in detention that some almost died. Security forces beat victims with rocks, bricks, gun butts, or metal rods. Most of those arrested are young men accused of participating in or supporting armed opposition groups.
HRW researchers interviewed more than 63 people in Bujumbura between November 2015 and February 2016, including victims, their relatives, witnesses, residents of areas where abuses occurred, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, judicial and security force officials, diplomats, United Nations staff, and other sources.
Human Rights Watch researchers in Burundi have documented an alarming new pattern of abductions and possible disappearances, particularly since December. Many families have not been able to get news of their relatives since security forces led them away. Many of those arrested are presumed dead. The police and intelligence services, or their intermediaries, have asked some families for exorbitant ransoms, with no guarantee that their relatives will be released and no certainty that they are alive.
Police and military, often accompanied by members of the ruling party youth league known as Imbonerakure, have carried out large-scale arbitrary arrests during search operations. These operations have also resulted in numerous extrajudicial killings. Many residents have moved out of their neighborhoods, in anticipation of further police or military operations.
In some cases, people were killed outright and their bodies left at the scene. This was the case, for example, on December 11, 2015, when the security forces shot dead a large number of people following attacks on four military installations that were attributed to the opposition. The military spokesperson said 87 people were killed on December 11, 79 “enemies” and eight military or police. Based on extensive interviews with a range of sources, Human Rights Watch believes the real number is much higher and that many victims were not involved in the attacks. In other incidents, victims’ bodies were dumped elsewhere, buried in mass graves, or taken to unknown destinations.
Other people survived extremely violent attacks with horrific injuries – mutilations, smashed bones, slit throats, attempted strangulation, and beatings with iron bars. Some have since died, while others left for dead survived.
Victims and witnesses of abuses are terrified to speak or move around town. Their fear has been heightened by the knowledge that people have denounced each other to the security forces. The government’s tactics have spread distrust among the population.
Armed opposition groups have also increased their attacks, killing Imbonerakure and other ruling party members, as well as security forces. These attacks almost always lead to violent reprisals by the security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
There have been frequent grenade attacks in Bujumbura, including the center of town, throughout January 2015 and February 2016, causing several deaths and scores of injuries. The identity of the perpetrators is not known. Médecins Sans Frontières stated that their trauma center in Bujumbura had treated 116 people in less than a week – 61 injured in grenade attacks on February 15, and 55 on February 11.
Bujumbura residents said they often saw Imbonerakure wearing police or military uniforms, carrying weapons and operating side by side with the police, making it difficult to distinguish them from the regular security forces. Some residents told Human Rights Watch they recognized Imbonerakure from their area wearing police uniforms.
Neither the Burundian government nor the armed opposition is doing anything to halt the spiral of abuses, HRW found. They are instead hardening their stance, knowing that they will not have to account for their actions.
President Pierre Nkurunziza should publicly denounce security force abuses and ensure that those responsible are held to account, Human Rights Watch said. Opposition leaders should also order their supporters to stop abuses. The Rwandan government should not allow, support, or participate in military training for armed groups responsible for human rights abuses in Burundi.
The Burundian government should grant full access to two UN special rapporteurs and a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, to investigate abuses in Burundi. As a Human Rights Council member, Burundi has an obligation to cooperate with the council’s representatives and to uphold the highest human rights standards. Failure to do so would put its membership status in jeopardy.
The UN Security Council should urgently seek the Burundian government’s consent for the deployment of a strong UN political mission with a substantial international police component, to be based in neighborhoods most affected by the violence. Its presence could deter or decrease abuses and attacks by both sides.
Given reports of the involvement of senior police, military, and intelligence commanders in serious abuses in Burundi, the UN should redouble efforts to vet Burundian personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions and exclude those with a known record of human rights abuses. The African Union should also urgently institute a vetting mechanism.
The Oslo Times