Interview: The price to pay for the defense of human rights in Burundi

Lawyer Tony Germain Nkina is one of the last people associated publicly to the movement Burundian of human rights, once flourishing, who is still in prison. He was arrested in 2020 and convicted in 2021, despite the lack of evidence against him. Human rights groups have called his trial a travesty of justice and say his five-year prison sentence is clearly linked to his past human rights work. Human Rights Watch’s Birgit Schwarz speaks with Burundi researcher Clémentine de Montjoye to understand why the Nkina case is emblematic of the current human rights situation in Burundi and why his release would signal that the Burundian authorities are serious about implementing democratic reforms and breaking with the country’s repressive past.

How did you meet Tony Germain Nkina?

Tony is a lawyer who previously worked with a group working to defend human rights and better conditions in prisons. We met in 2014 when I was researching abuses against human rights defenders and journalists for a regional organization.

At the time, civil society and the human rights movement in Burundi were vibrant. The organization Tony represented in Kayanza province, the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), was one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country. Tony was a committed human rights defender, with strong principles, who really cared about helping the most vulnerable, especially in Burundian prisons, whose harsh conditions are notorious.

When in April 2015 Burundi’s former president, Pierre Nkurunziza, decided to run for a controversial third term despite a two-term limit set by the Arusha Accords – the peace accord brokered at the end of a Violent civil war that claimed nearly 300,000 lives – independent non-governmental organizations played a leading role in organizing protests. The security forces responded with great brutality. Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and threats against those who are perceived as political opponents had become almost daily and plunged the country into a crisis of increased violence and repression.

Most of the main independent civil society organisations, including APRODH, were then suspended. Their bank accounts were frozen. Several human rights defenders have been imprisoned, including a former colleague of Tony’s who was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for alleged breaches of state security. The president of APRODH, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, nearly lost his life in an assassination attempt. The work of human rights defenders has become so dangerous that many activists have fled into exile or gone into hiding. Many are still in exile to this day. After the suspension of APRODH in 2015, Tony ceased his human rights activities and devoted himself to his profession as a lawyer. But the threat of being overtaken one day by his past weighed permanently on him. Being associated with the human rights movement can indeed have serious consequences in Burundi.

Why was he arrested ?

Tony was arrested in October 2020 while on the move in an area of ​​northern Burundi where rebel groups were active at the time. He had gone there to meet a client he was advising on a land dispute. In June 2021, a provincial court found Tony guilty of collaborating with armed groups, despite a lack of evidence. This is a common accusation against perceived opponents and critical voices in Burundi. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.

In September 2021, an appeals court upheld that conviction, even though his lawyers showed he had traveled to the area for legitimate business reasons and prosecutors had no credible evidence that Tony supported a rebel group.

What was the signal sent by his arrest?

Many Burundians had hoped for change when Burundi’s new president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, came to power in June 2020. protesters. Évariste Ndayishimiye pledged to break with the country’s violent past, to bring ” peace and justice for all and to hold government officials implicated in crimes to account.

However, Tony’s arrest and conviction under the new president reinforces the message that those associated with Burundi’s once vibrant human rights movement remain at high risk of persecution.

Has there been any consideration of Burundi’s repressive past?

As we know today, it was too optimistic to hope that Évariste Ndayishimiye would or could implement reforms. Just this month, the president replaced Prime Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, a party hardliner who was until recently under US sanctions, with Gervais Ndirakobuca. Ndirakobuca, too, has been sanctioned by the European Union (EU) and the United States for his alleged role in the 2015 crackdown.

Space for civil society and the media remains very restricted, and those perceived to be critical of the government continue to face repression. In this regard, none of the life sentences handed down in absentia in 2020 against prominent exiled human rights defenders and journalists have been overturned.

Abuses by members of the ruling party’s infamous youth league, the Imbonerakure, continue. People are targeted, arbitrarily arrested or subjected to enforced disappearances, but also sometimes tortured or killed simply because they refuse to join the party or because they are suspected of supporting the opposition or rebel groups. There is an erosion of the rule of law, and a lack of judicial independence.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous rights violations perpetrated by members of the Imbonerakure in rural areas. For example, in Cibitoke province in the northwest of the country, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, residents described a brutal crackdown on people suspected, often without evidence, of opposing to the Burundian government or aiding an armed opposition group that attacked the Burundian security forces. Since the election of Évariste Ndayishimiye, corpses, mostly unidentified and often mutilated, have appeared at an alarming rate in and around the river that separates the two countries. In the majority of cases, local authorities buried them quickly without opening an investigation.

How is Tony Germain Nkina holding up in prison?

Tony is married and has four children. Conditions in Burundian prisons are harsh. Places of detention are severely overcrowded, sanitary and hygienic conditions are deplorable, and life is often even more difficult for political prisoners.

The EU played a crucial role in 2015 and 2016 in supporting Burundian human rights defenders, including pushing for their release. But since the election of Évariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi’s international partners have remained quieter on human rights issues.

What does Burundian civil society think of international efforts to normalize relations with their government?

Since Évariste Ndayishimiye came to power, his government has made many efforts to try to lift the sanctions and other measures put in place by the international community in response to the human rights crisis unleashed under his predecessor. And with some success. The EU has lifted the financial restrictions imposed on the government under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, the United States has lifted all sanctions put in place by the Obama administration, and the mandate of the most effective human rights investigation mechanism to date, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, has not been renewed.

Many Burundian human rights defenders feel rather betrayed by this rapprochement, which has not taken into account the persistent rights concerns in Burundi and the fact that many perpetrators of abuses still hold high positions within the government. They also lament the lack of public attention to the repeated human rights abuses they document, as others do. For many, Washington’s and Brussels’ willingness to trust the same officials who have overseen the murders, disappearances and torture of thousands of people since 2015 is inexplicable, as is their silence in the face of ongoing human rights abuses under the US presidency. ‘Évariste Ndayishimiye.

Instead, what should Burundi’s international partners do?

The lifting of international sanctions and other punitive measures in the absence of real progress on human rights or democratic reforms risks encouraging Burundi’s leaders to crack down even more harshly on their opponents. These measures have certainly not favored structural reforms.

The UN Human Rights Council should renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on Burundi to ensure continued monitoring. Burundi’s international partners, such as the African Union, the United States, and the EU, should publicly denounce the persistent human rights violations perpetrated by the Burundian government and urge the restoration of the rule of law. The release of Tony Germain Nkina and the quashing of the in absentia convictions of the group of exiled human rights defenders and journalists would be a good start. Évariste Ndayishimiye’s promises to respect human rights and reform the justice system cannot be taken seriously as long as Tony Germain Nkina is in prison and other activists who have left the country are afraid to return home because of their past human rights activities.

Interview: The price to pay for the defense of human rights in Burundi