Article by Human Rights Watch
Published November 5, 2008
The detention of political activist Alexis Sinduhije and 36 others by Burundian police on November 3, 2008, highlights the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in Burundi, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH PRESS says.
Sinduhije, well-known as a former radio journalist, has been trying since February 2008 to form an opposition political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD).
The detention of Sinduhije follow extensive harassment of leaders of several partiesopposed to the dominant National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of the Democracy (CNDD-FDD).
“It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” says Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of police armed with Kalashnikovs entered the MSD headquarters shortly after noon on November 3, 2008 indicating they had information that an illegal meeting was being held. A search warrant that they contended legitimised their entry was delivered two hours later, carried no docket number, and listed another premises – Sinduhije’s residence – as the place to be searched. It gave the charge against Sinduhije as “threatening state security.”
Police officers searched and confiscated several documents, one of which they said contained “subversivematerial.” They proceeded to arrest everyone on the premises, including political activists, a receptionist, and a driver who was later released.
When a Human Rights Watch researcher present at the time of the search and arrests questioned police officers about irregularities, they responded that they were only “executing orders” given by Regional Police Commissioner David Nikiza, who had delivered the search warrant.
Asked to comment on the irregularities, the police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, responded that the party itself was illegal and that therefore the search and subsequent detention were justified.
Interior Minister Venant Kamana has refused to register MSD as a political party, claiming that a party cannot include “security” among its goals because security is the exclusive province of the state.
Taken into custody on November 3, 2008, Sinduhije and the others were still being held at several city jails as of the evening of November 4,2008 without any charges having been formally entered against them. Police officers interrogated Sinduhije, in the presence of his lawyer, about statements in the confiscated documents criticising President Pierre Nkurunziza’s development policies. They suggested such statements might lead to a charge of “insulting the President.” They also interrogated him about efforts to recruit party members among young people, some of them former combatants in rival forces during 10 years of civil war.
Two other MSD members were arrested in the last week of October 2008 in Cankuzo province, one for allegedly distributing party cards, the other for having such a card in his possession.
Ntarabaganyi, the police spokesman, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Sinduhije and the others had been arrested for holding an unauthorised meeting. A ministerial ordinance issued in early October 2008 requires political parties to obtain official authorisation for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as had previously been the case. Burundian law does not require groups other than political parties to obtain authorisation for meetings.
Other parties have also faced harassment. Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD. Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorised meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Nkurunziza after they criticised his education policy during a private conversation.
Most local authorities on the provincial and communal levels are CNDD-FDD members. Even before the new ordinance on meetings was issued, some of them used their authority or that of the police to hinder political meetings or to shut down press conferences by opposition parties including the Democratic Front in Burundi (Frodebu), theDemocratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), and the CNDD (a party different from CNDD-FDD).
Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Both of these treaties require Burundi to protect fully the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom of association. To avoid arbitrary detention, persons detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offense must be informed of the charge against them as quickly as possible, allowed access to a lawyer and to visitors, and be brought speedily before a judicial authority with power to order their release.
“Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law,” says Des Forges. “Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights.”