Burundian security forces should exercise restraint during search operations for illegal weapons in the capital, Bujumbura, and not use these operations as a license to kill.
President Pierre Nkurunziza warned on November 2, 2015, that anyone who failed to hand over weapons by November 7 would be “punished in accordance with the anti-terrorist law and fought like enemies of the nation.”
He told security forces they could use all means at their disposal to find these weapons and re-establish security. Search operations began on November 8.
“Reckless and threatening speeches by the president and other ruling party officials have created panic,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Burundian security forces have been responsible for numerous human rights violations in the past months, yet the authorities often just blame ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’ and ignore security officials’ deadly use of force.”
The president’s warning led many residents of Mutakura and Cibitoke neighborhoods to flee for fear of attack. Members of the ruling party youth league searched them as they left.
The son of leading human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot dead on November 6, reportedly after being stopped by the police, and initial media reports indicate that unidentified assailants killed at least seven people in an attack on November 7 at a bar on the outskirts of the capital.
In the lead up to search operations, senior ruling party officials used inflammatory and apparently threatening language in public speeches and statements. In a speech to local officials on October 29, Senate President Révérien Ndikuriyo said: “Go tell them [those who have weapons]: If something happens to them, they shouldn’t say ‘if only we had known’…. The day when we give people the authorization to ‘work,’ it will finish and you will see what will happen.” He repeatedly used the word “gukora,” which means “to work” in the Kirundi language. The same word was used to incite people to mass violence before and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Burundian authorities have the authority to conduct law enforcement and security operations to seize illegal weapons.
However, under international law, security forces are obliged to ensure that they only use force that is proportionate to a legitimate threat. They should follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out the limits on the use of force.
The speeches come on the heels of a spate of killings in Burundi, with more than 100 people killed since August, some by members of the security forces, in and around Bujumbura. The frequency and brutality of the killings have reached disturbing new levels.
Two of the deadliest attacks took place in the Bujumbura neighborhoods of Cibitoke and Mutakura on October 3, and Ngagara on October 13. Multiple witnesses said that men in police uniforms carried out both attacks, apparently in retaliation for attacks on policemen by armed men presumed sympathetic to the opposition. The first attack killed at least seven residents and the second killed nine.
In the Cibitoke attack, residents recognized members of the ruling party youth league who collaborated with policemen during the attack. Two witnesses saw between 7 and 10 dead bodies in civilian clothes being loaded into a police truck the day after the attack.
In the second attack, in Ngagara, the victims included a cameraman who worked for the state broadcaster. Police shot him dead, then ordered his wife, nephew, and two teenage children to come out of the house, made them and a local guard lie down on the main street, and shot each of them in the head, according to multiple witnesses.
In other cases, it has not been possible to identify the attackers. Dead bodies have been found nearly daily in Bujumbura, usually dumped overnight, sometimes in locations other than where they were killed – making it difficult to identify the victims or the killers.
Many victims have been found shot dead, with their hands or arms bound, and with injuries indicating they may have been tortured. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch some bodies appeared to have been stuffed into sacks, taken to the outskirts of the city, and buried.
Human Rights Watch arrived at the figure of more than 100 deaths by speaking to witnesses, family members of the victims, local authorities, journalists, and other local sources, but has not confirmed each killing or the circumstances of every incident.
Many Bujumbura residents told Human Rights Watch that they were afraid to discuss the killings, making it difficult to confirm the exact number of victims.
The police deputy director general, Godefroid Bizimana – one of four people against whom the European Union imposed sanctions on October 1 for “undermining democracy or obstructing efforts to achieve a political solution” – told Human Rights Watch on October 16: “The youths have used the population as human shields. This is how civilians have died. Some of the insurgents take civilians, accuse them of not being sympathetic to their cause, kill them, and dump their bodies.”
Witnesses, family members of victims, and members of the ruling party told Human Rights Watch that many of those who have turned up dead belonged to either opposition parties or the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).
Some were members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as Imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kirundi). Armed people sympathetic to the opposition have resorted to violence, throwing grenades at police, firing on them, and attacking police posts.
The prosecutor general and the police spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that investigations are opened into all reports of killings. In many cases, however, witnesses and victims’ relatives told Human Rights Watch that judicial authorities had not contacted them regarding investigations, even in high-profile cases or cases where the victims were ruling party members.
A justice official told Human Rights Watch that while case files have been opened on many killings, magistrates have not always thoroughly investigated them. The official said that cases are highly politicized, with some high-profile cases handled directly by magistrates or other officials close to the ruling party.
The deteriorating human rights situation in Burundi has led to a flurry of statements, resolutions, and other actions by senior diplomats and international and regional organizations, including a meeting at the UN Security Council on November 9 and a strong statement by the African Union Peace and Security Council on October 17. International and regional actors should use all available channels to sustain pressure on Nkurunziza to prevent further violence, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, should lead high-level delegations to Bujumbura to meet Nkurunziza and urge him to hold the police and the intelligence services accountable for their actions.
The delegations should also address the lack of credible investigations into recent killings, the lack of independence of the justice system, and attacks by opposition sympathizers against security forces.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should accelerate its investigation into human rights violations and other abuses in Burundi, as per the African Union’s Peace and Security Council statement on October 17, and ensure that it publishes a report on its findings in a timely manner.
The commission should appoint experienced, independent members for this investigation who can focus particular attention on killings by state security forces and opposition sympathizers and lay the ground for effective independent criminal investigations.
When Nkurunziza took his oath of office for his third term on August 20, he promised that “investigations are happening and, sooner or later, those who are killing people will be apprehended and severely sanctioned.” Yet no information is available on any prosecutions for these killings.
“President Nkurunziza needs to stick to his word,” Bekele said. “To prove that Burundi is a country where the security forces aren’t above the law, he should publicly and unequivocally condemn all killings and make sure there are thorough, independent investigations and prosecutions regarding all such cases.”
High Profile Attacks Against Specific Individuals
In addition to killings during police raids, a number of directed killings and attacks have been aimed at specific individuals.
The victims have included high-profile politicians, members of the security forces, human rights activists, and journalists.
One of the first was on May 23, almost a month after the start of demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s bid to stand for a third electoral term, when Zedi Feruzi, president of the opposition party Union for Peace and Democracy-Zigamibanga (Union pour la paix et la démocratie-Zigamibanga) was murdered.
Jean-Baptiste Bireha, a journalist, was injured during the attack, shot by men in police uniforms as he accompanied Feruzi home.
- August 2: Lt. Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, former head of the intelligence service and a close ally of the president, killed when unidentified men opened fire on his vehicle in Bujumbura;
- August 2: Esdras Ndikumana, the Burundi correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Agence France-Presse (AFP), severely beaten by intelligence officials after attempting to take pictures of the vehicle in which Nshimirimana was killed. Intelligence agents broke his finger and beat him hard on the soles of his feet;
- August 3: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Burundian human rights organization Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), shot in the face and neck on his way home from work by a man on a motorcycle who approached his car. Mbonimpa recognized the shooter as someone who worked with the intelligence services. Mbonimpa was severely injured and is receiving medical treatment in Europe;
- August 4: Côme Harerimana, a local president of the CNDD-FDD in Kanyosha, in Bujumbura Rurale province, killed when an unidentified gunman threw a brick at the motorcycle on which he was riding, causing the driver to lose control. The assailant then shot Harerimana in the head, ribs, and arm, and fled. Harerimana had previously received threats, apparently because he was a member of the ruling party. Demonstrators had come to his house during protests against Nkurunziza’s third term and sung: “We will dig 100 meters down and will bury Côme and all his family there”;
- August 15: Col. Jean Bikomagu, former chief of staff of the Burundian army during Burundi’s civil war in the 1990s, shot dead by an unidentified man on a motorcycle as he returned home;
- August 22: Pontien Barutwanayo, a member of the opposition party National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL) and former administrator of Isale commune, in Bujumbura Rurale province, shot dead. A witness said one or several people opened fire on Barutwanayo from behind a wall as he sat with friends at an outdoor bar in Rushubi, a town in Isale;
- September 7: Patrice Gahungu, spokesperson for the UPD opposition party, shot dead while driving to his house in Bujumbura. Intelligence agents had severely tortured Gahungu in 2010, beating him with truncheons and rocks, cutting off a piece of his ear and trying to make him swallow it, and forcing him to drink his own blood. They had interrogated him about grenade attacks allegedly carried out by the UPD and FNL and the two parties’ links. He was imprisoned for 15 months, and charged with weapons possession. After his release on October 24, 2011, he submitted an official complaint to the prosecutor general in 2012, as well as a petition to the UN Committee Against Torture on July 30, 2012. The Committee Against Torture wrote to the Burundian government in late August 2015, saying that Gahungu’s rights had been violated. The committee said the government should “take all necessary measures to prevent all threats or acts of violence to which the petitioner or his family could be exposed, in particular for having submitted this present request”;
- September 11: Gen. Prime Niyongabo, the army chief of staff, escaped an attack by unknown men in Bujumbura in which several of his bodyguards were killed; and
- October 17: Charlotte Umurwaneza, a member of the MSD opposition party, disappeared on October 16. Her body was found two days later next to a river outside of Bujumbura.
The prosecutor general, Valentin Bagorikunda, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting on October 16 that case files have been opened for each killing in the country. He said that investigations into the attack on Mbonimpa were under way but that it had not been easy to obtain testimony. He said that pre-judicial investigations were also under way on the killings of the two UPD representatives, Feruzi and Gahungu.
Report by Human Rights Watch