Burundi: Treatment of political opponents by the authorities (2019–July 2021) [BDI200700.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Political Situation and Overview

Presidential [legislative, and communal (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 14)] elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020; Evariste Ndayishimiye, leading the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), was elected president with 68.7 percent (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 14, 17) or 71.5 percent of the vote (Political Handbook of the World 2021, 242). According to a September 2020 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the CNDD-FDD and the "authorities had put in place a strategy founded on violence and human rights violations to ensure their victory in all the elections" (UN 23 Sept. 2020). Sources report that there were no international observers in the country to monitor the elections (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 15; US 30 Mar. 2021, 25). However, an article by Radio France internationale (RFI) indicates that "[s]ome" African observers monitored the polls (RFI 25 May 2020). According to sources, the main opposition party voiced concerns over irregularities in the vote and claimed that the election results were fraudulent (RFI 25 May 2020; UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 17, 31). Burundi's Constitutional Court dismissed subsequent legal challenges alleging, among others, ballot-stuffing, threats, and intimidation (Burundi 4 June 2020, 3–5, 13). Sources indicate that President Evariste Ndayishimiye took power in June 2020, following the death of the outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020; DW 17 June 2021).

The Constitutional Court indicates that the CNDD-FDD obtained 86 of 123 seats in the legislative election, and that the National Congress for Freedom party (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL), the main opposition party in Burundi, obtained 32 (Burundi 4 June 2020, 13). The CNL is led by Agathon Rwasa (HRW 27 Apr. 2020; DW 17 Feb. 2020), the former leader of the National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL) (DW 17 Feb. 2020). For more information on the FNL, as well as the treatment of FNL members by the authorities, see Response to Information Request BDI105752 of March 2017. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) [1], Rwasa formed the CNL in February 2019 (ACLED 19 May 2020).

Sources indicate that both the CNDD-FDD and CNL [or FNL (Political Handbook of the World 2021, 241)] are political parties founded by former Hutu rebels (DW 17 Feb. 2020; Political Handbook of the World 2021, 241) of the 1993-2009 civil war (Political Handbook of the World 2021, 241–242). According to another report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi published in September 2019, other political parties in the opposition include the National Progress Union (Union pour le progrès national, UPRONA) and the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie, MSD) (UN 17 Sept. 2019). The UPRONA won two seats in the 2020 legislative election (Burundi 4 June 2020, 13).

For additional information on the MSD, including the treatment of MSD members by the authorities, see Response to Information Request BDI106250 of March 2019.

2. Treatment of Political Opponents by the Authorities

In his inaugural speech, the newly elected President Ndayishimiye proclaimed that [Amnesty International English version] "[a]ll those who commit crimes, whether government members or other dignitaries, must be brought before the competent jurisdictions. All crimes must be punished to avoid falling into the same mistakes as in the past" (Burundi 19 June 2020, 16; Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020). The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi September 2020 report indicates that there have not been "any signs of tangible improvements of the human rights situation despite assertions to that effect by President Ndayishimiye," and that impunity still reigns (UN 23 Sept. 2020). In the lead up to the elections, the UN continued to document cases of summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, cases of "torture" and sexual violence, as well as "numerous" violations of key civil liberties (UN 23 Sept. 2020).

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings took place between June 2020 and May 2021, but "to a lesser extent" than during the election period (HRW 26 May 2021). The September 2019 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi indicates that the ruling party's youth wing, called the Imbonerakure, operating in conjunction with the police and the National Intelligence Service (Service national de renseignement, SNR), continue to commit human rights violations against civilians and opposition members (UN 17 Sept. 2019). HRW similarly reports that local government officials who support the ruling party, police and security forces "often" partner with Imbonerakure groups to coordinate attacks against political targets (HRW 27 Apr. 2020). According to an August 2020 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry Burundi, the perpetrators of human rights violations during the election period were "mainly members of the Imbonerakure and local administrative officials acting alone or jointly with the police or the [SNR]" (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 28–29).

The ACLED reports that the specific targeting of opposition supporters by Imbonerakure groups reached a "peak" number of recorded events in the months leading up to the 2020 election (ACLED 19 May 2020). Similarly, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) [2], in a June 2021 report based on interviews with, among others, mid-level civil servants, party members and journalists, indicates that, a year after the elections, there has been a "noticeable decrease in serious abuses by Imbonerakure against their political opponents," although killings and "torture" of political opponents continued in 2021 (BHRI June 2021, 4, 19).

For additional information on the Imbonerakure, as well as their activities and ties to the authorities, see Response to Information Request BDI106060 of February 2018.

2.1 Treatment of CNL Members by the Authorities

Sources indicates that a strategy was set in motion by the authorities to "weaken" (UN 23 Sept. 2020) or "obstruct" the CNL (BHRI Jan. 2020, 19). Furthermore, the ACLED reports that violent attacks against CNL members comprised the "vast" majority of recorded events leading up to the elections, while only a "small" minority of attacks were directed against other political party supporters (ACLED 19 May 2020). According to a January 2020 report by the BHRI based on "more than" 160 interviews conducted between July and December 2019 with, among others, victims and witnesses of human rights violations, ruling party members, opposition party members, civil servants, justice officials and politicians inside and outside Burundi, Imbonerakure groups have intimidated and attacked CNL members, including threatening people who refuse to join the ruling party (BHRI Jan. 2020, 5, 19, 26).

Sources have reported instances of violent clashes and murders during the election period between Imbonerakure groups and CNL party supporters, including the following:

  • On 18 August 2019, a group of CNL supporters were attacked in Muyinga province by dozens of Imbonerakure armed with machetes and clubs, which resulted in the death of a CNL party member (BHRI Jan. 2020, 20, 28–32).
  • On 30 August 2019, in Gihanga commune, Bubanza province, dozens of Imbonerakure carrying clubs attacked a group of CNL members as they were about to inaugurate a new party office; two CNL supporters sustained injuries during the clashes (BHRI Jan. 2020, 23).
  • On 12 December 2019, a local representative of the CNL in Nyabiraba, Bujumbura province, was shot dead (BHRI June 2020; Iwacu 20 Dec. 2019) by members of the Imbonerakure (BHRI June 2020). According to the BHRI, local residents believe he was targeted because of his opposition activities (BHRI June 2020).
  • In May 2020, a CNL member was killed by the Imbonerakure (UN 23 Sept. 2020; BHRI June 2021, 9) in Mwaro province (BHRI June 2021, 9).
  • Sources report that "dozens" of (US 30 Mar. 2021, 28) or "[a]round 40" (BHRI Jan. 2020, 20) CNL party offices were destroyed or vandalized (BHRI Jan. 2020, 20; US 30 Mar. 2021, 28) between 15 June and December 2019 (BHRI Jan. 2020, 20).

2.2 Arbitrary Arrests

According to the August 2020 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry Burundi, dozens of CNL members were arbitrarily arrested leading up to the 2020 elections (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 32). The RFI article indicates that according to the CNL, 300 of its members were arrested during the election's campaign, and "at least" 200 of its supporters were arrested on election day (RFI 25 May 2020). The Ministry for Public Security and Disaster Management (ministère de la Sécurité publique et de la Gestion des catastrophes) released a statement in the run-up to the elections blaming CNL supporters for attacking members of the ruling party (Burundi 18 May 2020). The August 2020 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry Burundi that "most" of those who were arrested were released a few days or weeks after the elections, while others were sentenced to several years in prison and, as of August 2020, some still remain in pretrial detention (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 32).

An August 2020 report by Amnesty International indicates that Imbonerakure members participate in security committees with local officials and "frequently" work alongside the police and the SNR, including when carrying out arbitrary arrests (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020). According to the August 2020 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry Burundi, arbitrary arrests and detentions are carried out "mainly" by the police and the SNR officers, but also by members of the judiciary (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 29).

2.3 Judiciary

According to the September 2020 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the judiciary in Burundi is still being used as a "tool of repression" against political opponents and promotes a climate of impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations (UN 23 Sept. 2020). The same source adds that victims hesitate to file complaints, fearing retaliation, "or because they do not see it serving any purpose" (UN 23 Sept. 2020). The June 2021 BHRI report, based on interview with judicial workers, indicates that there is, in the judiciary, "constant meddling by politicians, CNDD-FDD or security officials seeking to influence the outcome of cases" (BHRI June 2021, 23).

A May 2021 report by HRW indicates that alleged perpetrators of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests, are arrested and prosecuted "in only a few cases, although their trials often lacked transparency" (HRW 26 May 2021). According to the August 2020 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry Burundi, records from the Ministry for Public Security identify members of the CNL as responsible for 90 percent of incidents, without conducting investigations (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 33).

Sources report cases in which Imbonerakure have been convicted for violent attacks against CNL supporters, including the following:

  • In October 2019, four Imbonerakure members were convicted in connection with the murder of a CNL member and were sentenced to life in prison (RFI 10 Oct. 2019; BHRI Jan. 2020, 32, 65) and ordered to pay approximately US$2,388 (BHRI Jan. 2020, 32, 65).
  • Two Imbonerakure members were found guilty of murdering a CNL member and sentenced to 15 years in prison (UN 23 Sept. 2020; BHRI June 2021, 9) in July 2020 (UN 23 Sept. 2020).

2.4 Geographic Distribution of Violence

According to sources, political disorder during the 2015 election cycle happened especially in Bujumbura, whereas during the 2020 election cycle "[m]ost" (BHRI Jan. 2020, 13) or "the bulk" (ACLED 19 May 2020) of political violence took place in rural areas (ACLED 19 May 2020; BHRI Jan. 2020, 13). Data collected by the ACLED shows that, in the period leading up to the 2015 elections, nearly 60 percent of all political disorder occurred in Bujumbura Mairie, as opposed to the 2020 elections, for which Bujumbura accounted for 7 percent of all events (ACLED 19 May 2020). The ACLED indicates that this a "reflection of the CNL's broad appeal in rural areas previously dominated by the ruling party" (ACLED 19 May 2020).

2.5 Treatment of Other Groups Associated with the Opposition

Sources describe the Burundian regime as conducting a "repression" (HRW 26 May 2021) or a "crackdown" (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020) against members of civil society (HRW 26 May 2021; Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020) associated with the opposition (HRW 26 May 2021).

Sources report incidents involving enforced disappearances, prisoners of conscience and arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists, including the following:

  • In 2017, a former employee of the anti-torture organization Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) was arrested on charges including "threatening state security"; they were convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 32 years in prison (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020; US 30 Mar. 2021, 14). Amnesty International indicates that they were released after serving over four years in prison (Amnesty International 1 July 2021).
  • In August 2018, a human rights defender was sentenced to five years in prison for "threatening state security" (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020; HRW 26 May 2021) after being found guilty of compiling reports for the Burundian Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association burundaise pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH) closed by the authorities (HRW 26 May 2021). HRW indicates that they were pardoned and released in April 2021 after serving three and half years of their sentence (HRW 26 May 2021).
  • Four journalists of the Iwacu press group were arrested [while on their way to report on clashes between the security forces and an armed group in Bubanza province in October 2019 (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020)]; the four journalists were sentenced to 2.5 years in prison and each fined approximately US$525 for "undermin[ing] internal state security" (Amnesty International 11 Aug. 2020; HRW 26 May 2021). HRW indicates that the four journalists were pardoned and released in December 2020 (HRW 26 May 2021).
  • On 2 October 2020, former independent parliamentarian Fabien Banciryanino was arrested on charges of rebellion and threatening internal state security (Amnesty International 15 Oct. 2020; HRW 26 May 2021). According to Amnesty International, the accusations against Banciryanino "appear to be based primarily on statements made while he was a member of the National Assembly between 2015 and 2020, which would normally be covered by parliamentary immunity" (Amnesty International 15 Oct. 2020). According to HRW, in May 2021, Banciryanino was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison and fined US$51 (HRW 26 May 2021).

According to a March 2021 report by the UN Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence, women associated with opposition parties have been the subject of targeted intimidation, threats and arbitrary detention during the 2020 election period (UN 30 Mar. 2021, para. 12). Sources also report instances of sexual violence against women who refuse to join the ruling party (Freedom House 3 Mar. 2021, Sec. G3; UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 58–59) or who are associated with an armed movement, and that the attacks were "mainly" perpetrated by the police or the Imbonerakure (UN 13 Aug. 2020, para. 58–59). According to a 2019 UN Human Rights Council (HRC) report, the attacks include incidents of rape and gang rape against women and girls, to intimidate them or as a form of "punishment" for their perceived political views (UN 8 Oct. 2019, para. 6). The September 2020 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi indicates that women can be subjected to sexual violence because of their husband's political activities or refusal to join the ruling party (UN 23 Sept. 2020).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Notes

[1] The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is a US-based non-profit organization that collects data on political violence and protest in various regions around the world (ACLED 19 May 2020).

[2] The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) is "an independent project that aims to document the evolving human rights situation in Burundi" without political affiliation (BHRI June 2021, 3).

References

Amnesty International. 1 July 2021. "Burundi: Release of Germain Rukuki a Victory for Human Rights." [Accessed 19 July 2021]

Amnesty International. 15 October 2020. Burundi: Release Outspoken Opposition Politician. (AFR 16/3230/2020) [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Amnesty International. 11 August 2020. "Explainer: 10 Things Burundi's New Government Can Do to Improve Human Rights." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). 19 May 2020. Ladd Serwat. "Widespread Violence Rises Ahead of Burundi's 2020 Election." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Burundi. 19 June 2020. "Discours de Son Excellence Général Major Evariste Ndayishimiye à l'occasion de son investiture." [Accessed 22 June 2021]

Burundi. 4 June 2020. Cour constitutionnelle. "Arrêt RCCB 388 du 04 juin 2020 : Les résultats définitifs de l'élection des députés." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Burundi. 18 May 2020. Ministère de la Sécurité publique et de la Gestion des catastrophes. "Communiqué du ministère de la Sécurité publique et de la Gestion des catastrophes à la veille des élections présidentielle, législative et communale." [Accessed 12 July 2021]

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI). June 2021. Ndayishimiye One Year On: Has He Kept His Word on Human Rights? [Accessed 18 June 2021]

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI). June 2020. "The Deadly Price of Opposition: Désiré Ntahondabasigiye." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI). January 2020. A Façade of Peace in a Land of Fear: Behind Burundi's Human Rights Crisis. [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Deutsche Welle (DW). 17 June 2021. Cai Nebe with Wendy Bashi and Apollinaire Niyirora. "Burundi Seeks New Direction 1 Year After President's Death." [Accessed 20 June 2021]

Deutsche Welle (DW). 17 February 2020. Georges Ibrahim Tounkara. "Burundi: Ex-Rebel Agathon Rwasa to Run for President." [Accessed 12 July 2021]

Freedom House. 3 March 2021. "Burundi." Freedom in the World 2021. [Accessed 28 July 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 26 May 2021. "Burundi: Entrenched Repression of Civil Society, Media." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 27 April 2020. "Burundi: Campaigns Begin amid Clampdown." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Iwacu. 20 December 2019. Felix Haburiyakira. "Nyabiraba : funérailles de feu Désiré Ntahondabasigiye." [Accessed 12 July 2021]

Political Handbook of the World 2020-2021. 2021. "Burundi." Edited by Tom Lansford. Thousand Oaks: CQ Press. [Accessed 24 Apr. 2021]

Radio France internationale (RFI). 25 May 2020. Daniel Finnan. "Ndayishimiye Wins Burundi Election, Opposition Alleges Fraud." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

Radio France internationale (RFI). 10 October 2019. "Burundi : prison à vie pour quatre meurtriers Imbonerakure." [Accessed 12 July 2021]

United Nations (UN). 30 March 2021. Security Council. Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: Report of the United Nations Secretary-General. (S/2021/312) [Accessed 7 July 2021]

United Nations (UN). 23 September 2020. Human Rights Council (HRC). "Oral Briefing of the Commissions of Inquiry on Burundi." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

United Nations (UN). 13 August 2020. Human Rights Council (HRC). Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. (A/HRC/45/32) [Accessed 18 June 2021]

United Nations (UN). 8 October 2019. Human Rights Council (HRC). Resolution Adopted by the Human Rights Council on 27 September 2019: Situation of Human Rights in Burundi. (A/HRC/RES/42/26) [Accessed 20 June 2021]

United Nations (UN). 17 September 2019. Human Rights Council (HRC). "Oral Briefing of the Commissions of Inquiry on Burundi." [Accessed 18 June 2021]

United States (US). 30 March 2021. Department of State. "Burundi." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020. [Accessed 20 June 2021]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project; assistant professor in international development at a university in the UK who has worked in Burundi; The Burundi Human Rights Initiative.

Internet sites, including: AllAfrica; BBC; Burundi – government portal; China Global Television Network; The EastAfrican; Factiva; Freedom House; Global Voices; Institute for Security Studies; SOS médias Burundi.