UN Security Council should press for deployment of international police presence
(Nairobi) – The Burundian authorities are targeting perceived opponents with increased brutality. Government forces are killing, abducting, torturing, and arbitrarily arresting scores of people at an alarming rate.
(PressZoom) - (Nairobi) – The Burundian authorities are targeting perceived opponents with increased brutality. Government forces are killing, abducting, torturing, and arbitrarily arresting scores of people at an alarming rate.
As the capital, Bujumbura, descends into new levels of lawlessness, patterns of human rights abuses have shifted. Whereas dead bodies on the streets of Bujumbura were a daily occurrence in the second half of 2015, many abuses are now taking place under the radar, with security forces secretly taking people away and refusing to account for them.
“The Burundian police, military, intelligence services, and members of the ruling party’s youth league are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and terrorize perceived opponents,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Government forces and the ruling party are treating suspected opponents with extreme cruelty and viciousness, which could further escalate the violence.”
Security forces have tortured or ill-treated suspected opponents so severely during arrests or in detention that some almost died. Security forces beat victims with rocks, bricks, gun butts, or metal rods. Most of those arrested are young men accused of participating in or supporting armed opposition groups.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 63 people in Bujumbura between November 2015 and February 2016, including victims, their relatives, witnesses, residents of areas where abuses occurred, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, judicial and security force officials, diplomats, United Nations staff, and other sources.
Human Rights Watch sought meetings with Burundian government officials while in Bujumbura but did not receive a response. On February 18, the president’s communications advisor, Willy Nyamitwe, sent the following Twitter message to Human Rights Watch: “I have strong evidences (sic) that HRW is working with Rwanda and radical opposition. In that case, there is no need to talk to them.”
Human Rights Watch researchers in Burundi have documented an alarming new pattern of abductions and possible disappearances, particularly since December. Many families have not been able to get news of their relatives since security forces led them away. Many of those arrested are presumed dead. The police and intelligence services, or their intermediaries, have asked some families for exorbitant ransoms, with no guarantee that their relatives will be released and no certainty that they are alive.
Police and military, often accompanied by members of the ruling party youth league known as Imbonerakure, have carried out large-scale arbitrary arrests during search operations. These operations have also resulted in numerous extrajudicial killings. Many residents have moved out of their neighborhoods, in anticipation of further police or military operations.
In some cases, people were killed outright and their bodies left at the scene. This was the case, for example, on December 11, 2015, when the security forces shot dead a large number of people following attacks on four military installations that were attributed to the opposition. The military spokesperson said 87 people were killed on December 11, 79 “enemies” and eight military or police. Based on extensive interviews with a range of sources, Human Rights Watch believes the real number is much higher and that many victims were not involved in the attacks. In other incidents, victims’ bodies were dumped elsewhere, buried in mass graves, or taken to unknown destinations.
Other people survived extremely violent attacks with horrific injuries – mutilations, smashed bones, slit throats, attempted strangulation, and beatings with iron bars. Some have since died, while others left for dead survived.
Victims and witnesses of abuses are terrified to speak or move around town. Their fear has been heightened by the knowledge that people have denounced each other to the security forces. The government’s tactics have spread distrust among the population.
Armed opposition groups have also increased their attacks, killing Imbonerakure and other ruling party members, as well as security forces. These attacks almost always lead to violent reprisals by the security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of recruitment and military training of Burundian refugees in Rwanda, to join Burundian opposition groups, between May and July 2015. They were recruited by Burundian refugees and trained by Burundians and Rwandans. In a February 22, 2016 letter to Human Rights Watch, the permanent secretary in the Rwandan Ministry of Justice said that the Rwandan government “has heard of some broad allegations of insecurity among Burundian refugees” and “is intrigued by these accounts and seeks information that may be useful in carrying out investigations.”
“Attacks by opposition groups have become increasingly targeted, aimed at members or sympathizers of the ruling party and the security forces,” said Bekele. “Contrary to their leaders’ statements that they want to defend the population, their tactics are putting ordinary Burundians at risk of further abuses.”
There have been frequent grenade attacks in Bujumbura, including the center of town, throughout January 2015 and February 2016, causing several deaths and scores of injuries. The identity of the perpetrators is not known. Médecins Sans Frontières stated that their trauma center in Bujumbura had treated 116 people in less than a week – 61 injured in grenade attacks on February 15, and 55 on February 11.
Bujumbura residents told Human Rights Watch that there was not even a pretense of law and order anymore. They said the security forces’ behavior indicated that the chain of command was breaking down and the police, military and Imbonerakure did whatever they wanted with complete impunity. “There are no more rules and no one cares,” one woman said.
Bujumbura residents said they often saw Imbonerakure wearing police or military uniforms, carrying weapons and operating side by side with the police, making it difficult to distinguish them from the regular security forces. Some residents told Human Rights Watch they recognized Imbonerakure from their area wearing police uniforms.
Neither the Burundian government nor the armed opposition is doing anything to halt the spiral of abuses, Human Rights Watch found. They are instead hardening their stance, knowing that they will not have to account for their actions.
President Pierre Nkurunziza should publicly denounce security force abuses and ensure that those responsible are held to account, Human Rights Watch said. Opposition leaders should also order their supporters to stop abuses. The Rwandan government should not allow, support, or participate in military training for armed groups responsible for human rights abuses in Burundi.
The Burundian government should grant full access to two UN special rapporteurs and a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, to investigate abuses in Burundi. As a Human Rights Council member, Burundi has an obligation to cooperate with the council’s representatives and to uphold the highest human rights standards. Failure to do so would put its membership status in jeopardy.
The UN Security Council should urgently seek the Burundian government’s consent for the deployment of a strong UN political mission with a substantial international police component, to be based in neighborhoods most affected by the violence. Its presence could deter or decrease abuses and attacks by both sides.
Given reports of the involvement of senior police, military, and intelligence commanders in serious abuses in Burundi, the UN should redouble efforts to vet Burundian personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions and exclude those with a known record of human rights abuses. The African Union should also urgently institute a vetting mechanism.
“With victims of abuse in Burundi paralyzed by fear, the cases that have come to light are just the tip of the iceberg,” Bekele said. “The government and the opposition should immediately rein in their members and supporters to break the cycle of violence.”
For more details, please see below.
The Backdrop to Burundi’s Crisis
The current political and human rights crisis in Burundi began in April 2015, when President Nkurunziza announced his candidacy for a third term – a move seen as illegitimate by many Burundians. The police violently repressed widespread public demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s third term. After a failed coup led by a group of military officers on May 13, police cracked down further on protesters and critics. In the following months, targeted assassinations and other killings escalated, and the government intensified its crackdown. Armed opposition groups began attacking security forces, throwing grenades or shooting at police patrols. By December, several hundred people had been killed and regional leaders’ attempts at facilitating political dialogue had essentially failed.
In contrast with Burundi’s armed conflicts in previous decades, which were largely fought along ethnic lines, the current tensions in Burundi are primarily political, with the government targeting anyone suspected of opposing it. Victims of abuses include members of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. However, in some cases, members of the security forces, intelligence services, or Imbonerakure have hurled ethnic insults at Tutsi as they arrested, or ill-treated them. While there are many Tutsi in the government, many of the powerful positions in the ruling party and the security forces are held by Hutu. The government seeks to portray the opposition as predominantly Tutsi, even though it includes many Hutu.
While most national institutions include both Hutu and Tutsi, the current crisis is making some members of each group distrustful of one another. This has been exacerbated by inflammatory rhetoric by some ruling party members and opposition figures.
Recent Killings, Other Attacks
Events of December 11 At about 3 or 4 a.m., on December 11, 2015, Bujumbura residents heard explosions and gunfire from three military positions and a military training center that had been attacked in Musaga neighborhood.
Beginning at about 8 a.m., police and military pursued the alleged attackers into Nyakabiga and Musaga, two of the neighborhoods where there were strong demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s third term. In Nyakabiga, armed opponents engaged the security forces in a sustained gun battle. It is unclear how many armed opponents, and how many members of the security forces or Imbonerakure, were killed in the fighting.
A source told Human Rights Watch that security forces arrested five soldiers from Camp Base (a military camp) who were suspected of involvement in the attacks. According to this source, a senior intelligence official then issued a detention order, and an intelligence services vehicle picked up the five soldiers and took them to an area near Lake Tanganyika, where they were killed. A witness saw their bodies the next day near the lake, all five with their throats cut.
After the armed clashes, a combination of different security force units, including the police and military responsible for guarding state institutions (Appui pour la protection des institutions, API, and Brigade spéciale pour la protection des institutions, BSPI), and the police anti-riot brigade (Brigade anti-émeute. BAE), accompanied by armed Imbonerakure, entered Nyakabiga and Musaga. They forced their way into houses and ordered residents to show them where young men or combatants were hiding. Some of them shouted ethnic slurs and insults against Tutsi residents.
Some residents said the security forces demanded money. Other residents offered money, hoping they wouldn’t be killed. Police and military looted many homes, stealing phones, clothes, electronics, and household goods. They looted beer from local bars, drinking some of it on the spot.
A man from Nyakabiga told Human Rights Watch that police shot a visiting relative as he left his compound.
At around 11 a.m., it was a bit calmer on our street and (a relative) who had come to visit us went outside. When he was just in front of the gate, an API policeman, who was on the Avenue de l’Imprimerie, shot him. Some young men saw that he’d been hit and carried him to the 16th Avenue. They stopped the bleeding and left him there. He’d been hit in the stomach. Later, police came and finished him off.
The man said the police shot his relative twice in the chest and once in the head.
Human Rights Watch viewed photos of 15 bodies found in Nyakabiga on December 11. Many were found on the street, without their shoes – security forces often make detainees remove their shoes at the time of arrest to make it harder for them to flee. Some were side by side, face down, and appeared to have been shot in the back. One of those found in this position was Benoit Ngendakumana, a teacher in his 30s. Another photo showed the body of a man who had been killed in his house; a local resident said he had been tied up, shot, and locked inside. Another was of a man killed in his shop.
Local government trucks removed most of the bodies before any investigation could be conducted.
Police and intelligence agents went door-to-door, arbitrarily arresting young men. A 30-year-old man from Nyakabiga said that when his wife opened the door, a policeman hit her with the butt of his gun and hit him in the eye with a pistol. The police forced the couple to sit on the ground in the courtyard.
One of the policemen shouted at us: “You house and feed the combatants! Let Kagame (the President of Rwanda), Obama, and the African Union come and save you. The white people are lying to you, just like (Alexis) Sinduhije (an opposition leader). You are Tutsi terrorists. (Nkurunziza) is president for life. Nobody can fight those in power.” We were around 20 (in the courtyard) and only one policeman was shouting bad things at us. The others were drinking what they had stolen from the bar in our house. They beat everyone there.
A witness said that in one house, police picked two men from a group of six and drove them away in an intelligence services truck. Their bodies were found with their arms bound the next day, both shot in the head and the neck.
One resident saw 20 bodies in Nyakabiga the day after the attack; another counted 22. Another resident said there were 29, a few of whom were from other neighborhoods. Witnesses said they saw 12 bodies in Jabe.
One case in particular shows the brutality by the security forces on December 11. A 31-year-old man from Nyakabiga said that anti-riot police tied his arms behind his back and took him to see their commander, who has been accused of numerous human rights abuses for several years. The man said:
The police said: “Here is one of the youth who shot at us.” They hit me with clubs, kicked me, and slapped me, saying, “These youth are dogs.” Then (the commander) asked me: “Where are the combatants?” I said I didn’t see them. (The commander) said: “Take him over there and strangle him.”
Two policemen took him to an empty house.
One of them took off the rope around his waist and the other stomped on my head while I was lying on the ground. He put the rope around my neck, then each of them took the end of the rope and started to pull. Blood came out of my nose and eyes. After a while, they took off the rope and left, thinking I was dead. I lost consciousness for a while. When I woke up, I was wet, but when I looked, I was covered in blood, alone and tied up.
The man found someone to untie him and hid, but policemen found him. He said they beat him again and took him back to the same commander, who gave them instructions to kill him. The man eventually talked his way out and went into hiding.
In Musaga neighborhood, where security forces also clashed with armed youth, police, and military forced their way into homes and accused residents of having weapons and harboring opposition fighters. Residents recognized Imbonerakure wearing police uniforms. Soldiers from Camp Muha and Camp Muzinda, two large military camps in Bujumbura, provided reinforcements. As gunfire and explosions rang through the neighborhood, a resident said he heard someone yell: “Get out of the house!” He said:
When we went out, I saw almost a dozen API policemen. Three of them had machine guns, three had rocket launchers and others had Kalashnikovs with grenades. Some had what looked like an ax a butcher might use. Inside our compound, they were shooting everywhere. They were drunk. They made us lie down on our backs and spread our arms and look at the sun. Hot shells were falling on us. They drank Amstel (beer) and poured it on us. They said: “Where are the youth who shot at us during the night?”
One of them cocked his gun and put it to my temple. Then he asked another (if he should kill me). I thought I was finished. Another said: “Wait.” Then another one came and cut me (on my arm) with an ax. I had a wide wound and blood was shooting up like this into his face. I said: “You’re killing me! You’re killing me!” He said: “I didn’t know it was so sharp.”
He saw the police beating other people and kicking a man in the jaw. Two of the policemen entered his house, asked him where he kept his money, and looted sheets, shoes, clothing, and other valuables. The man lay on the ground for an hour and a half, then fled. Afraid to go to the hospital, he rubbed liquid from a medicinal plant on his wound and hid. Interviewed several weeks later, he said: “Now, if I’m arrested by the police, I will just say to them: ‘Kill me so that I don’t have to go through that again.”
A 39-year-old man in Musaga who ran a small bar out of his house went out during a lull in the gunfire on December 11. Policemen and Imbonerakure in civilian clothes hiding in an open street gutter told him to go home. There he heard someone say, “Let’s destroy the houses so that we can loot them.” The police started shooting at his house. He hid behind a refrigerator. They shot open the outer door of the house and three Imbonerakure in police uniforms entered:
They said: “Come out from there immediately!” One of them took an iron bar and hit me twice in the back. One of them went into the room where my daughter and a bar employee were asleep. He stepped on them, pointed his gun at them and said: “Give me the money.” The two other (men in police uniforms) stayed outside drinking beer. (One of the policemen) took all our suitcases and bags and put the beer in them. They took powdered milk and sugar. They took the meat out of the refrigerator and ate it raw. They said to me: “I’m going to show you how the Imbonerakure work.”
They cut him on the head with a bayonet and he lost consciousness. He believes they thought he was dead and left:
They came back 20 minutes later to take other drinks. They found me sitting down and wiping blood from myself. They said: “You imbecile, are you still alive?” They took me to a place where around 50 (others) were tied up. They used my shoelaces to tie my arms behind my back. Men from the API, BAE and soldiers made us lie down on our backs. When (the security forces) finished drinking beer, they (balanced) the bottles on the throats of those of us lying down. When the bottle fell, they either kicked us or hit us with their gun butts. It was a form of punishment. They knew good and well that when you are tied up and looking at the sun, you can’t hold out. Men came and kicked me. All of them kicked me like it was a game of soccer.
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