Burundian intelligence services have tortured and ill-treated scores of suspected government opponents at their headquarters and in secret locations, Human Rights Watch said today. Police and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have also committed serious abuses, often in collaboration with the intelligence services.
Agents of Burundi’s national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR) have increasingly been responsible for torturing alleged opposition sympathizers taken into custody. They have beaten detainees with hammers and steel construction bars, driven sharpened steel rods into their legs, dripped melting plastic on them, tied cords around men’s genitals, and used electric shocks. Detainees who were tortured or injured have been denied medical attention and many have been held in stinking, windowless cells.
“Politically motivated torture by the Burundian intelligence services has reached new levels and has become increasingly vicious,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Intelligence agents treat suspected opponents horrifically because they know they can get away with it. The government should call a halt to torture immediately.”
The United Nations Security Council should deploy international police to Burundi with a strong protection mandate and set up an international commission of inquiry to investigate torture and other grave abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
Since April, 2016, Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 40 torture victims from nine provinces and the capital, Bujumbura. Some were interviewed outside the country. Torture and ill-treatment appear to have become more widespread, and torture techniques more brutal, following a failed coup in May 2015 and several grenade attacks on bars by unidentified men in Bujumbura and elsewhere since early 2016. While it is difficult to ascertain the full scale of the abuses, the number of people tortured by intelligence agents across the country is most likely much higher than the number of cases Human Rights Watch documented. The UN reported 651 cases of torture in Burundi between April 2015 and April 2016.
For security reasons, Human Rights Watch is not making public the names of interviewees and other information. Intelligence officials told some detainees they would be killed if they spoke about their treatment and ordered others to lie or promise not to talk to human rights groups. Intelligence agents have followed and threatened people suspected of giving information to human rights groups.
Former detainees, including opposition party members, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence agents beat them with water pipes weighted with steel construction bars, often until they bled or had difficulty standing. One said that a policeman working at the SNR headquarters poured a liquid over his body that burned him so badly he begged to be killed. Another said an SNR agent smashed bones in his legs with a hammer. A former detainee said an SNR agent interrogated him while an Imbonerakure dripped melting plastic on him. They also used pliers to cut his genitals, while an Imbonerakure told him: “You will end up revealing the secrets of [opposition leader Alexis] Sinduhije.”
Detainees and others with knowledge of the SNR headquarters in Bujumbura’s Rohero neighborhood said that the compound has several unofficial cells where detainees who had been tortured were hidden from international monitors.
Police officials have also tortured and ill-treated detainees. A police officer used pliers to pull out the tooth of one detainee. The victim told Human Rights Watch: “[The police officer] said he would pull out a tooth every day until I admitted I worked for human rights. I was in so much pain, and there was lots of blood.”
Several young men said the police arrested them for no stated reason, provided no warrants and rarely observed arrest procedures, and then beat them.
The Burundian authorities should seek the assistance of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and humanitarian agencies to identify victims of abuse who need medical assistance, and provide the necessary assistance, including specialized medical care outside their detention site, Human Rights Watch said.
Imbonerakure, meaning “those who see far” in Kirundi, have also been responsible for numerous abuses across the country, Human Rights Watch said. Imbonerakure operating at two major border crossings between Burundi and Rwanda have openly arrested suspected opponents in front of police, military, and border officials and accused them of collaborating with Burundian opposition members living in Rwanda. Witnesses said that in some cases the Imbonerakure appeared to have more power than the police.
In May, Human Rights Watch wrote to Etienne Ntakirutimana, the head of the SNR, who reports directly to President Pierre Nkurunziza, with questions about alleged abuses, but received no reply. However, the public security minister, Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, who oversees the police, sent a five-page reply in which he wrote that it was “unthinkable” that police could have mistreated detainees and that it would be a “serious error to assert gratuitously” that the police arbitrarily arrested, tortured, or ill-treated suspected government opponents. He denied categorically that the police collaborated with theImbonerakure.
Armed opposition groups have also attacked security forces and ruling party members, including police and Imbonerakure. A high-ranking Imbonerakure told Human Rights Watch that more than 50 Imbonerakure had been killed across the country since April 2015, including at least four in grenade attacks in Bujumbura in May 2016. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm these figures.
The UN Security Council should urgently set up an independent, international commission of inquiry and authorize the deployment of an international police force in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. While coordinating with the Burundian police, the international police should maintain their independence and not provide assistance to the Burundian security forces.
The commission of inquiry should have expertise in criminal, judicial, and forensic investigations and conduct in-depth inquiries with a view to establishing responsibility for the most serious crimes. It should focus on torture by the intelligence services and the police, particularly the role of senior intelligence and police officials.
UN and African Union human rights observers in Burundi should intensify their visits to SNR and police detention facilities to deter and document torture. They should publish frequent detailed reports on their findings, including on any attempts by the authorities to obstruct or restrict their full access to detention centers.
In April, the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary examination of the situation in Burundi. Other countries should consider investigating and prosecuting through their national courts, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, Burundians found on their territory who are believed responsible for ordering and carrying out torture and other serious rights violations.
The facilitator of talks between Burundian political actors, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, should give priority to human rights concerns. Mkapa should press all sides to stop committing rights abuses and call upon the government to stop torture by the intelligence services and the police.
“The Burundian government claims the national justice system is independent and that individuals who commit abuses are held to account. Authorities should prove this by investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the systematic torture taking place in Burundi today,” Bekele said. “But President Nkurunziza is ultimately responsible for the torture by the national intelligence services and police, so he should take appropriate action.”
Torture, Other Abuses by the Intelligence Services
The SNR has a long history of torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and other human rights abuses against suspected government opponents. Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of torture by the SNR to compel detainees to confess to alleged crimes or to incriminate or denounce others.
These practices became more widespread, and torture techniques more brutal, following a failed coup d’état in May 2015. A source who had access to SNR facilities said that intelligence officials, in collaboration withImbonerakure, began then to routinely torture suspected opponents in their custody.
Police officers and SNR agents arrested a police official in Bujumbura on June 25, 2015. Police beat him and several bystanders. They alleged the official had a grenade that he was going to “give to Tutsis to kill Hutus” and took him to the SNR headquarters, commonly known as La Documentation.
On July 1, [Etienne Ntakirutimana, head of the SNR] came. He told me to come out of the cell. I showed him where I’d been beaten. He said: “You haven’t been beaten. You will be seriously beaten now.” He made fun of me. He said: “If you are a commando, everything that happens to you, you have to accept it. Even if you want to go to Rwanda and play around with [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame, the Hutu people will never be conquered.”
The SNR transferred the official to Muramvya prison on July 8, and he was formally charged with participating in the failed coup. He was convicted after a flawed trial. In January, the Supreme Court acquitted him and he fled the country. The Supreme Court appeals court later convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison.
On February 18, unidentified men arrested a 22-year-old student in Bujumbura’s Ngagara neighborhood and bundled him into a truck. The student believed they were intelligence agents. As they drove off with him, one of the men said to him: “Turn over the weapons that you have.” They stomped on his chest as he lay in the back of the truck and asked him about the identity and whereabouts of others in his neighborhood. He said:
Police Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Arbitrary Arrests
Since May 2016, the government has responded to grenade and other attacks it attributes to the opposition with mass arrests and detentions of hundreds of people. Many have been released but many others remain in custody. On May 2, President Nkurunziza said in a public speech: “We ask all Burundian citizens to fight those who disrupt security and peace and be finished with them in two months.”
After a grenade attack in Bujumbura’s Bwiza neighborhood on May 28, the police detained several hundred people. The police spokesman, Pierre Nkurikiye, told a local media outlet it was “normal” to arrest people near the site of a grenade explosion and “among those arrested, there may be perpetrators of the attack.” Police officials said all those arrested were later released.
Bujumbura’s mayor, Freddy Mbonimpa, said the arrests were necessary to control the movements of the population. To do this, police raided houses and detained people to check “household notebooks,” a register of all people living in a particular house. It is now compulsory for all households in Bujumbura to maintain a household notebook certified by a local government official.
On May 11 and 13, police arrested more than 200 young men and students in Bujumbura’s Musaga neighborhood. Local residents said the police ordered them to produce identity cards and “household notebooks,” but arrested some of them and took them to a nearby administrative office before they had time to collect the notebooks. Police beat some detainees with belts and truncheons and insulted them. Detainees said that the police usedImbonerakure and former opposition members to identify suspected government opponents. They recognized some former opposition members who used to live in Musaga circulating among the detainees.
The police mass arrests appeared politically motivated, rather than a genuine attempt to verify household notebooks. A 25-year-old man among those arrested told Human Rights Watch: “A policeman said: ‘You have been arrested. You are rebels, and you can’t prove that you are not. Look how many of you are here. Do you think you can attack the country with this number of people?’”
Under Burundian law, police must obtain an arrest warrant to arrest a suspect, unless the person is caught in the act (en flagrant délit). The public security minister, in his letter to Human Rights Watch, said that no suspects were arrested without a warrant except for those who were caught in the act. However, in the majority of cases that Human Rights Watch documented, the police failed to show a warrant to those arrested.
Police have tortured and ill-treated detainees. In February, policemen carrying firearms emerged from a police truck and stopped a 27-year-old man on the street. When they ordered him to come with them, he refused. A policeman hit him in the back with his gun butt, then forced him into the truck.
Human Rights Watch Report