The Burundian authorities must urgently investigate excessive force by police against largely peaceful protesters during demonstrations that have left nearly 60 people dead since April, Amnesty International said today (23 July) with the publication of a new report.
Protests broke out across the country in April after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term in office, despite the constitution only allowing two.
Amnesty’s new 48-page report - Braving Bullets: Excessive force in policing demonstrations in Burundi - reveals how police have shot unarmed demonstrators, including some who were running away from them, and used tear gas, even when children were present. Between April and June, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 58 people were killed, mostly protesters but also two policemen, two military officers and one member of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa Sarah Jackson said:
“It is a tragedy that demonstrators had to brave bullets to try to have their voices heard.
“The Burundian authorities must urgently, thoroughly and transparently investigate the use of excessive lethal force against largely peaceful demonstrators and bring to justice anyone found to be responsible.
“The government must suspend suspects pending criminal investigations and prosecutions to end this pattern of police brutality and impunity.”
Although most protesters remained peaceful, some used violence in response to excessive force by the police. Amnesty has documented how some protesters threw stones, beat up a policewoman, vandalised property, and killed one Imbonerakure member.
The violations by police against protesters - as well as government statements before the demonstrations which pre-emptively characterised them as “an insurrection”, show that the Burundian authorities sought not just to disperse demonstrations, but to punish protesters for expressing their political views, the report says.
Though contradicted by the report findings, a presidential advisor told Amnesty that some of the abuses were committed by people wearing police uniforms, but not the police themselves. Meanwhile, according to the deputy police spokesperson, five policemen are under investigation in relation to the demonstrations. However, no victims or family members interviewed by Amnesty had filed complaints with the police, citing fear of reprisals following other reported incidents of intimidation by police or intelligence agents.
The assault on protesters was coupled with a crackdown on media. From the first day of the protests, the authorities prevented radio stations from broadcasting outside of Bujumbura. On 13 May, after military officers staged an attempted coup, the police physically attacked independent media outlets, and they have remained unable to broadcast since then
A divided police force
On 8 July, a police spokesman who has now fled the country, gave a media interview where he said a “parallel police” had emerged and that “some policemen have been assassinated” because they had different opinions.
The report includes accounts of policemen increasingly frustrated with orders they received, which contradicted their training in human rights. Some police flatly refused to follow orders.
Testimonies of brutality
A witness to protests on 4 May near Ntahangwa Bridge in Bujumbura told Amnesty:
“They (the police) shot at people who were demonstrating peacefully. It was unbelievable. People were fleeing in the river, the police shot at people running away in the river.”
A local journalist told Amnesty:
“Once in Nyakabiga, I saw an officer taking away the weapon of another policeman after he had killed a young man. He told him ‘you have not received the order to shoot people’. I have also seen policemen stopping their colleagues from shooting live ammunition at demonstrators or using tear gas […] But then three pick-ups arrive, drop some policemen who just start shooting before leaving again. I saw this in Nyakabiga, Musaga and Cibitoke on several occasions. […] I heard several times policemen saying about demonstrators ‘let’s kill them’ and some others saying no. Once in Musaga, I saw a policeman crying, who said ‘I am tired of this, when will it stop?’”