UN seriously concerned by Burundi rights, press crackdown

Burundi Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye came to power in June 2020.  By Tchandrou NITANGA (AFP)
Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye came to power in June 2020. By Tchandrou NITANGA (AFP)

The United Nations voiced alarm Tuesday over Burundi's crackdown on human rights activists and press freedom, urging the African nation to release those arrested.

"We are seriously concerned by the increasing crackdown on critical voices in Burundi following the recent detention of five human rights defenders and the imprisonment of a journalist," the UN human rights office said.

Burundian intelligence agents arrested the human rights activists on February 14 and March 15 with the Court of Appeal upholding a High Court ruling to keep the five in detention pending trial.

Sonia Ndikumasabo, Marie Emerusabe, Audace Havyarimana, Sylvana Inamahoro and Prosper Runyange have been charged with rebellion, and undermining domestic state security and the functioning of public finances.

"These charges appear to be based solely on their association with an international human rights NGO, Avocats sans Frontieres," human rights office spokeswoman Marta Hurtado told reporters in Geneva.

"This crackdown on civil society comes as we are also seeing an assault on press freedom in Burundi," she added, citing the case of journalist Floriane Irangabiye, who has spent more than six months in prison "simply for doing her job".

She was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January and fined around $500 for allegedly undermining the integrity of the national territory.

A bloody conflict erupted in 2015 when late president Pierre 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.

"Suppression of civil society, often based on legislation inconsistent with the state's human rights obligations, has been a consistent trend in Burundi since the 2015 electoral crisis, which forced many human rights defenders and journalists into exile," said Hurtado.

"We urge the Burundian authorities to fully uphold human rights standards regarding freedom of expression and association, release these individuals and quash the charges against them that stem from conduct protected under human rights law."

She also urged Burundi to create a safe and conducive environment for the work of human rights defenders and journalists, free from intimidation and retaliation.

President Evariste Ndayishimiye, who came to power in June 2020, has been praised for slowly ending years of isolationism after 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 remains one of the world's poorest.