NGOs urge the release of Burundi rights campaigners

NAIROBI (AFP): Three human rights groups called Tuesday for the immediate unconditional release of five Burundian activists charged with rebellion and undermining state security.

Burundian intelligence agents arrested the five, four of whom were about to fly to Uganda from the economic capital Bujumbura, last month.

They were later charged with rebellion and undermining the domestic security of the state as well as the functioning of public finances, before being detained in Bujumbura’s central prison.

Under Burundian law, they face up to 30 years in prison.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Burundi Human Rights Initiative said the charges were “baseless” and demanded they be dropped.

“Burundian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release five human rights defenders arbitrarily arrested,” they said in a joint statement.

“The arrests… and the serious charges brought against them signal a worsening climate for independent civil society in Burundi,” said Clementine de Montjoye, Africa researcher at HRW.

The jailed activists include Sonia Ndikumasabo, president of the Association of Women Lawyers of Burundi, who was arrested at the airport.

Another was Prosper Runyange, a member of the Association for Peace and the Promotion of Human Rights (APDH), arrested the same day in the northern town of Ngozi.

“If working in partnership with or receiving funding from international groups is treated as a criminal offense and a threat to state security, what little space was left for civil society to operate in Burundi will be closed,” HRW’s Montjoye warned.

Despite ongoing concerns about the rights situation, both the European Union and the United States last year resumed aid flows to the deeply impoverished landlocked nation, citing political progress under President Evariste Ndayishimiye.

Ndayishimiye has been praised for slowly ending years of Burundi’s isolationism under former leader Pierre Nkurunziza’s chaotic and bloody rule.

But he has failed to improve its wretched record on human rights and the African Great Lakes nation of 12 million people remains one of the poorest on the planet.

Burundi had been under US and EU sanctions over a bloody crisis that erupted in 2015 when Nkurunziza made a controversial bid for a third term in office.

The turmoil claimed the lives of 1,200 Burundians and led to 400,000 fleeing the country.