UN condemns "endemic" sexual violence, torture and killings in Burundi, calls for justice
BUJUMBURA, 27 November (IRIN) - Human-rights violations have continued in Burundi, despite a new democratically elected government, according to a senior United Nations official in the country.
Sexual violence is commonplace, while arbitrary killings, arrests and torture are also happening, according to Ismael Diallo, the director of the human-rights division of the UN Operation in Burundi (ONUB).
"The human-rights situation has really not improved since the previous government; it has more or less remained the same, except for abuses by the intelligence services, which have become noticeably worse," Diallo said.
Burundi is emerging from 13 years of civil strife during which human rights were regularly abused. The current government swept to power in a landslide election in August 2005 pledging to restore order.
Diallo noted that abuses by Burundi's national intelligence service, the Service National de Renseignement (SNR), had grown significantly worse over the past few months, with its agents carrying out arbitrary arrests and torturing detainees suspected of being allied to Burundi's last active rebel group, the Forces nationales de libération.
In an October report, an international watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), accused the SNR of torture and possible involvement in extrajudicial killings that it said went unpunished.
"Intelligence agents are believed to have been involved in the killing or presumed killing of at least 38 people over the past year," the report said. "Thirty-one people are currently missing and presumed dead in Muyinga [province in the north] with several bodies and body parts having been found in a local river."
HRW said that in July, people in Muyinga told human-rights organisations that family members had been arrested and could not be found. At least seven bodies were recovered from the region's River Ruvubu.
However, Burundi's government spokesman and minister of information, Ramadhan Karenga, told IRIN the HRW report lacked credibility since the group had not consulted the government during its investigations.
"We know about the bodies in Muyinga, and even the ones recently pulled out of the river in Bubanza Province, but how can we know that it was the intelligence service that did it? We are carrying out our investigations, and when the perpetrators have been arrested, we will be able to say with certainty who committed the murders. Until then, people can only speculate," Karenga said.
A local rights group, Ligue Burundaise des Droits de l'Homme, known as ITEKA, also said the rights situation had not improved, and that they had been persecuted for criticising abuses by government agents.
"We had hoped that after the elections the human-rights abuses would reduce, but more than a year later things are no better; we are still seeing extrajudicial killings, rape is widespread and we are threatened for our reports," said Jean-Pierre Kisamare, ITEKA's information secretary. "The governor of one province has actually said ITEKA is an enemy of peace and has arrested our staff members."
HRW said seven former high-level government officials and opposition leaders arrested in August for an alleged coup attempt - including former Vice-President Alphonse Marie Kadege - had been tortured.
Kadege's wife, Ruth Magerano, told the BBC in August that when she visited her husband in detention, she saw him "lying flat on the floor with a policeman standing on him".
The country's minister of national solidarity, human rights and gender, Françoise Ngendahayo, also visited the detainees in August and said she had seen signs of torture.
Diallo said despite numerous requests, his office had not been allowed to visit SNR detention centres to check that prisoners' human rights were being protected.
The press, too, had complained of harassment by the government and on 22 November, two journalists from independent radio station Radio Publique Africaine were arrested over a story about the alleged coup plot, a move condemned by the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists as "a government attempt to silence critical reporting".
Karenga defended his government's action, saying standards of journalism in Burundi were very poor. "Many of the people who call themselves journalists have no training in the field and therefore have no concept of journalistic ethics," he said. "To some they may be journalists, but to us they are former police officers or teachers who may have a personal grudge against people in the government."
Sexual violence endemic
Diallo noted that while the arbitrary arrests and killings were worrying, sexual violence was even more rampant in Burundi.
"Rape and sexual violence is a daily occurrence and is hardly considered a crime any more," he said. "About two-thirds of rapes are committed by civilians, and one-third by uniformed personnel, meaning the police or the army."
Diallo said ignorance and a sense of power conferred by the possession of a uniform and a gun, combined with a lack of discipline in the armed forces and the security forces' failure to punish offenders, allowed soldiers and police officers to continue to violate the rights of women and girls.
In a recent report on the human-rights situation in Burundi, ONUB's human-rights division reported 83 cases of sexual violence across the country during September alone. Diallo noted that most cases went unreported because of stigma and likely inaction by the authorities.
"In many instances, the case is settled locally through elders called 'Bashingantahe', and often the culprit could get away with his crime by simply giving the family a bicycle or money," he said.
When Christine Muhorakeye (not her real name) was raped early in 2006 by two men in Kiremba commune in the northern province of Ngozi, she reported the matter to the police, who released the men after they made reparations of 200,000 Burundi francs (US$200). The result was considered positive by the villagers as the money allowed Muhorakeye and her fiancé to pay for their wedding; most rape survivors got far less, they said.
Diallo said an in-depth education campaign on sexual violence was required and the penal code needed to be revised, as under current rape laws there was "room to play around".
Urgent action necessary
Torture, Diallo added, also needed to be more clearly defined as a crime under the penal code.
"The laws need to be enforced and strengthened," ITEKA's Kisamare said. "The government must also reduce its influence over the judiciary, which does not currently allow justice to prevail; there must be respect for the separation of powers."
Diallo said the European Union had threatened to withhold funding if there were no improvements in Burundi, including on rights violations. About two-thirds of Burundi's budget is donor funded, and cuts would severely affect the government's programmes.
"Sensitisation, education and training are all essential to educating people about the law," he added. "Civilians, the SNR, the military and ministries such as security, gender and justice all need further training on human rights."
He said he had met senior government officials who had assured him they were working towards penalising human-rights violators.
ITEKA's Kisamare said that in October, Burundi's First Vice-President Martin Nduwimana had promised regular dialogue with civil society during which human-rights issues would be discussed.
Karenga acknowledged that his government still had some issues to iron out, but said they were in the early stages of establishing their authority over the various government departments and the country in general.
"We know that there are some bad elements, but fixing the problem is not easy; the police force, for instance, is made up of the established officers as well as former rebels, many of whom have no training," he said. "We intend to train them professionally … we are trying to correct the wrongs that have been carried over from previous regimes.
"Consider that we are coming out of so many years of civil war; you cannot expect us to heal the wounds of the country in 24 hours," he added.
Burundi, human rights, Current Affairs, Politics, Africa