Burundi rejects claims of human rights abuses as ‘lies from far away’

Opponents of Burundi’s government are being subjected to numerous human rights violations, according to a UN commission.

Returning refugees and even Catholic bishops are being targeted, the commission found, as well as those who refuse to join the ruling party or its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, which is accused of gang-rape and torture.

In a briefing to the UN’s human rights council, Doudou Diène, president of the commision of inquiry on Burundi, said human rights abuses had been ongoing since May 2018, when a referendum was held over a proposal to extend the presidential term from five years to seven, potentially enabling Pierre Nkurunziza to extend his tenure until 2034. The abuses included summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and sexual violence, said Diène.

Burundi’s ambassador to Geneva, Rénovat Tabu, dismissed the allegations as “lies from far away”, according to a statement apparently released to local media.

The commission said Burundi’s government was trying to convince the world that things had returned to normal, even as international crimes were still taking place.

Diène said that democratic space in Burundi was “rapidly shrinking”, which made investigating human rights violations ever more complex.

“All our efforts towards dialogue with the Burundi government have proved to have been in vain and we deeply regret this,” he said.

“On our part, we maintain our policy of engagement towards Burundian authorities. We are ready to embark on a constructive dialogue with them, particularly so that they can present the situation in the country, provided this is done on the basis of objective indicators.”

Nkurunziza, whose current term as president ends next year, a former rebel leader who took power in 2005 and was re-elected in 2010 after an opposition boycott of the vote.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled and more than 1,000 died in 2015 when he announced he would seek a third term.

Diène said the refugees from the 2015 crisis had been forgotten, and that it was the least-funded emergency situation in the world, with 350,000 people living in countries neighbouring Burundi. Many would not return because of the “uncompromising stance” of the government and thousands continue to leave, he said.

Lucy Asuagbor, one of the commissioners, said people who had returned since fleeing in 2015 were being targeted.

“Returnees and some of their family members have also been victims of other serious violations like rape, arbitrary arrests and executions. Such incidents have forced some of them to flee again,” she said. “Some young men who were accused of cooperating with armed opposition groups, simply because they stayed or travelled abroad, have been arrested and severely tortured.”

In last year’s referendum, more than 70% of voters backed Nkurunziza’s bid to extend term limits.

Rénovat did not respond to a request for comment, but said in the statement released by local media that the commission had become politicised.

“Burundi is stable, and peace and security reign over the whole land,” he said. “Burundians are sick and tired of their lying, divisive, provocative and distracting reports.”

The commission’s full report will be released in September.