Three representatives of the local NGO Parcem in the province of Muramvya (central Burundi) were sentenced to ten years in prison by the High Court of Muramvya last Thursday. Accused of « undermining the internal security of the State », they have been imprisoned in Muramvya for eight months. Their lawyer plans to appeal. Parcem is one of the fewer independent NGOs still operating in Burundi.
This is the first time Burundian justice has condemned civil society activists to such a harsh sentence. It was last Thursday when Parcem chiefs were surprised to learn that the verdict had just been announced: « 10 years in prison for all three. » The chairman of the organization, Faustin Ndikumana, has confirmed the information. He deplores, however, that they have not yet been officially notified. He further regrets that the hearing took place in the absence of the defendants and their lawyer. Describing the sentence as a « shameful judgment, » the activists’ lawyer, Joseph Niragira, plans to appeal.
Last January, the prosecutor had requested between 20 and 23 years imprisonment for the three activists who were accused of « undermining the internal security of the State. »
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On June 13, 2017, Emmanuel Nshimirimana, the provincial representative of Parcem in Muramvya, Aimé Gatore, the representative of the organization in Mbuye commune and Marius Nizigama who represents it in the Buhangura area, were all arrested in Mbuye by security forces and agents of the national intelligence services. They were arrested while planning a sensitization workshop on « human rights violation » and « arbitrary arrests » to which different members of political parties were to participate. They got into trouble due to the training manual that they were going to use. At the time of their arrest, the security forces said the « document only designates the opposition activists as beneficiaries of the training and excludes members of the CNDD-FDD party ». The same security agents concluded; « the training aims to disrupt the security of the country ».
Hunt for civil society activists doubled in intensity
Two other human rights activists have been in prison for some time. Germain Rukuki, former treasurer of ACAT Burundi (Action of Christians for the Abolition of Torture in Burundi) and Nestor Nibitanga, former representative of APRODH (Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons) in Gitega, were arrested on 13 July and 21 November 2017 respectively. Same refrain; « undermining the internal security of the State »- such is the charge that weighs on them, a crime punishable by a penalty of up to more than 20 years in prison. Five activists in total are behind bars. And never had such a record had it been reached in the history of Burundi. Rukuki was transferred from Bujumbura to Ngozi prison, northern Burundi, two weeks after his arrest. Nibitanga is held in Rumonge (south of the country). International human rights organizations and the UN demand their release.
In October 2016, the Ministry of the Interior had closed five civil society groups opposed to the third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza. One of the reasons, according to the ministry, was that ACAT, APRODH, FORSC and FOCODE had continued to operate clandestinely, despite their suspension eleven months earlier, instead of appearing before the Burundian justice. The suspension concerned ten independent organizations, including PARCEM, for which the measure was eventually lifted.
Burundi has been facing a serious political and security crisis since the President’s announcement to bid for the third term in April 2015. According to the United Nations, the crisis triggered by the candidacy has already taken hundreds of lives and displaced more than 400,000 people.