The Deadly Price of Opposition

The series “The Deadly Price of Opposition” explores how Burundians have lost their lives to political killings since late . The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) is publishing these cases to keep them in the public eye and maintain pressure on the Burundian authorities to deliver justice.

These cases represent just a small proportion of politically motivated killings in Burundi in the period leading up to the elections. Killings and other serious human rights violations against opposition members – a feature of the political landscape in Burundi for many years – increased sharply in the second half of and the first half of . BHRI hopes that by shining a light on a few emblematic cases, it can also help bring about positive developments in other cases – and ultimately help prevent further political violence.

The National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) was declared the winner of the presidential, legislative and local elections on . The results were strongly contested by the largest opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL), which alleged large-scale rigging and claimed that close to 400 of its members were arrested and arbitrarily detained during and after the election period. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi – one of the few independent organisations to have deployed election observers – also reported numerous irregularities.

There is a pressing need for the country to move on from the political, human rights and economic crisis that has devastated Burundi since . However, the lives lost before the elections cannot be swept under the carpet – as has been done so many times in Burundi’s bloody history. The new government has a duty to make impunity a thing of the past and to prevent revenge attacks and further political violence.

BHRI has investigated each of the cases in this series. The accounts are based on in-depth interviews with multiple eyewitnesses and other sources close to these events, and supporting documents where available. BHRI has not revealed the identity of witnesses for their protection.

BHRI has submitted its findings on these cases to Burundian government and judicial officials, as well as to the leadership of the CNDD-FDD. BHRI will continue to call for action on these and other cases until there is a credible process to bring to justice those responsible for political killings.

In the majority of cases featured in this series, the victims were members of the CNL – the main rival to the CNDD-FDD in the elections. BHRI chose these cases because of their particular brutality and because they highlight the involvement of local government or ruling party officials and the impunity that protects them. Most of the alleged perpetrators were members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, the Imbonerakure, sometimes acting in collusion with local government officials and local CNDD-FDD representatives. In one case study, police or members of the intelligence services killed individuals accused of being members of the armed opposition.

Public reactions by Burundian government and CNDD-FDD officials to these killings have ranged from silence and apparent indifference to categorical denials and statements blaming the opposition for most or all of the violence. There have been few credible investigations into these cases, and even fewer credible prosecutions.

Typically, the Imbonerakure allegedly involved in these killings have escaped justice, while CNL members or acquaintances of the victims have been arrested in their place, often arbitrarily and on trumped-up charges. A few Imbonerakure have been arrested, but most have been released within a short period. Some have continued threatening the victims’ families, even after killing their relatives. Many families are too afraid to demand justice, so the cases are effectively shelved.

Several Imbonerakure and other CNDD-FDD members have also been killed or injured in and , some in clashes with CNL members, others in circumstances that remain unclear. BHRI has attempted to investigate several of these cases and requested further information from the Burundian government and the CNDD-FDD, but has not yet been able to confirm the identity of the perpetrators or whether these killings were politically motivated.

The cases featured in this series will be a test for Burundi’s newly elected president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, and for the national justice system. During the pre-election period, Ndayishimiye repeatedly proclaimed his commitment to ending impunity, including for political violence. He now has a chance to demonstrate that commitment by advocating for justice for the families of the victims and ensuring they are not forgotten.

Richard Havyarimana: Found dead in a river, three days after his abduction. Disappeared on 4 May 2020. Found dead on 7 May. Mwaro province.

Richard Havyarimana

Found dead in a river, three days after his abduction

When Richard Havyarimana’s family finally found his body on , their fears became a grim reality – he had been killed and dumped in a river. They had been looking for Havyarimana ever since members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, violently abducted him three days earlier from his house on Mbogora hill in Nyabihanga commune (Mwaro province).

In the months leading up to the elections in Burundi, Imbonerakure had repeatedly threatened Havyarimana, the representative of the opposition party Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) in Mbogora. Only days before his abduction, an Imbonerakure told him: “I see you don’t want to change parties. That’s a problem... If you don’t want to change, I can call (someone at) a higher level and they can punish you.” Havyarimana replied that he didn’t like the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD), the ruling party. He didn’t take the threats seriously; he thought they were just a joke.

Imbonerakure were campaigning in Mbogora on , telling residents to vote for the CNDD-FDD. They were accompanied by Pamphile Bigirimana, the son of the party chairperson in Nyabihanga, who asked where Havyarimana’s house was located. Bigirimana was on the CNDD-FDD’s list of provincial candidates for the legislative elections, but didn’t win a seat.

Around midnight that night, a car parked in Mbogora, and several men stepped out and headed to Havyarimana’s house. They shattered a window and broke down his door. Four of them forced their way inside, while others stood guard outside.

Neighbours suddenly woke up when they heard Havyarimana and his wife scream: “Come to our rescue! There are thieves here!” One of the assailants responded: “We’re not thieves, we’re from the intelligence services.” When neighbours rushed to Havyarimana’s house, the men standing outside stopped them from approaching. Some of them wore police jackets and had guns. One of them warned: “We’re going to shoot at anyone who comes close.”

When two of the four men who had broken into the house were recognised, it soon became clear that they hadn’t come to steal the meagre profits Havyarimana made from selling local beer or the crops he’d harvested. Dieudonné Nsengiyumva, also known as Rwembe, the head of the Imbonerakure in Nyabihanga commune, and Boris Bukeyeneza, another Imbonerakure, had come to abduct Havyarimana. Havyarimana’s wife begged them to spare him, hoping they would take pity when she showed them their 3-month old baby.

Neighbours saw the men drag Havyarimana to the car, after handcuffing him and beating his face. The car sped off to the main road and headed in the direction of Gitega, the country’s capital.

This marked the start of a frantic search by Havyarimana’s family. They first checked the police cells in the neighbourhood – the destination of most of the hundreds of CNL members arrested in recent months – and informed the police about the Imbonerakure involved in the abduction. A local resident claimed that a police officer privately acknowledged that the two Imbonerakure had been involved and identified the owner of the car they had used: Oscar Ndayizeye alias Romeo, a local CNDD-FDD member and businessman.

Yet the police ignored repeated requests to arrest them. It pained those close to Havyarimana to see the two Imbonerakure walk around freely in Nyabihanga and participate in the CNDD-FDD’s electoral campaign. The local police commissioner claimed they couldn’t arrest the suspects while investigations were ongoing. The administrator of Nyabihanga commune, Adrien Ntunzwenimana, accused CNL members of being troublemakers and told his family Havyarimana would soon turn up.

The family continued searching, hoping to find Havyarimana, dead or alive. When residents of nearby Kibogoye hill informed them that they had seen a suspicious car and heard screams near the river Ruvyironza the night of the attack, Havyarimana’s family focused their search on the riverbanks. In the following days, they received several alerts from people who had seen a body floating in the river, but they didn’t manage to find it.

Finally, on , residents of Muyebe hill alerted the family that a body was stuck behind a tree where the Ruvyironza flows between Nyabihanga and Giheta commune, in Gitega province. Havyarimana’s relatives pulled the body out of the water and onto the riverbank.

It was the body of Richard Havyarimana. Photos viewed by the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) show several deep gashes on his head. Witnesses also described what appeared to be a stab wound in his chest. “It was horrible to see”, said one of the men who helped pull the body from the water. The body had started decomposing, so the family decided to bury him the same day.

They immediately alerted the local authorities. A judicial police officer came to assess the situation. The commune administrator said he was too busy to go to the scene and sent a low-level official. None of these authorities attended the burial – most were too busy drinking in a bar not far from the burial ground. When the family visited the bar after the burial, local leaders left quietly, without a word of comfort.

In recent months, several relatives of CNL members have informed BHRI about other disappearances. Like Havyarimana’s family, they first asked local government officials and visited detention centres, hoping to find out what had happened to their loved ones. When that failed to produce any results, a long period of anxiety set in. Some CNL members later turned up in detention, but many others didn’t reappear, and some were found dead.

Between and , Burundian human rights groups reported the discovery of at least 51 dead bodies across the country. In many cases, it is not known if the victims were killed for political reasons. Some of the bodies were found in or near lakes or rivers. Rather than ordering an investigation, local authorities often ordered an immediate burial, even if the bodies showed clear signs of violence.

Dumping bodies in rivers and lakes has been a common practice throughout Burundi’s bloody history, and persists in , as Havyarimana’s case shows. A similar fate was intended for a young CNL member from Bweru commune (Ruyigi province) who told BHRI that in , Imbonerakure had thrown him into a river, after pulling his testicles and beating him so badly with a bike chain that they thought he had died. He waited in the river until the Imbonerakure had left, then escaped.

The perpetrators of serious human rights violations such as these are rarely held accountable. But for Havyarimana’s family, there may be a glimmer of hope. Soon after Havyarimana’s body was found, police arrested Bukeyeneza and Nsengiyumva, the two Imbonerakure allegedly involved in the abduction. The family submitted a formal complaint to the prosecutor, who interviewed several witnesses.

Havyarimana’s relatives are afraid that because political interference is common in these kinds of cases, the two suspects might be released: “We submitted complaints, but we don’t know whether justice will be served or whether these people will soon be released,” a man close to the case told BHRI.

BHRI wrote to national government officials asking what action the authorities had taken following Havyarimana’s murder. BHRI also wrote to the prosecutor of Mwaro to ask whether other individuals with an apparent connection to the case, including Bigirimana, who was looking for Havyarimana’s house on the day of his abduction, and Ndayizeye, the alleged owner of the car that may have been used to drive him away, have been questioned or arrested. None of these officials replied.

A neighbour of Havyarimana said that those responsible for Havyarimana’s murder and other political killings should be prosecuted to prevent future violence: “We need justice. If nothing is done, others will die.”

Update: On , the tribunal de grande instance (high court) of Mwaro province sentenced two members of the youth league of the ruling party, Dieudonné Nsengiyumva and Boris Bukeyeneza, to 15 years in prison for murdering Richard Havyarimana. The court also ruled that the two men, who had been part of a group that violently abducted Havyarimana on , should collectively pay 10 million Burundian francs (approximately US$5,176) to the family of the victim. The Mwaro prosecutor had asked for life imprisonment for the two defendants. He promised he would also investigate the role of other individuals involved in Havyarimana’s abduction and death. The two defendants have appealed the decision.

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

Désiré Ntahondabasigiye : Shot in front of his family. Killed on 12 December 2019 by ruling party youth. Bujumbura province.

Désiré Ntahondabasigiye

Shot in front of his family

Désiré Ntahondabasigiye was a local representative of the opposition party Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) in Nyabiraba commune, Bujumbura province. He was married with five children. His wife was expecting their sixth child when he was shot dead by members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, on , at his home in Musenyi colline (hill), Nyabiraba zone.

On the morning of , Désiré Havyarimana, the head of the ruling party – Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – in Nyabiraba, told two local businessmen, also CNDD-FDD members, that Ntahondabasigiye was collecting financial contributions for the CNL and kept a record of these contributions in a notebook. To quash this rumour, Ntahondabasigiye gave one of the businessmen a notebook in which he recorded income from his and his wife’s business selling locally made beer, and asked him to show it to Havyarimana.

This did little to dampen the rumours. Later the same day, friends warned Ntahondabasigiye to be careful and told him he might be in danger.

That evening, between and , Ntahondabasigiye was eating dinner with his wife and children when several shots were fired through a window of his house. Ntahondabasigiye was fatally hit and died moments later. His wife and children were not hurt.

An eyewitness saw Jean Marie Ntagahoraho, an Imbonerakure who lived nearby, with a gun at the window just before the shots were fired, and a neighbour saw Mélance Ntakarutimana, another Imbonerakure, near the house, also holding a gun. Just before the attack, another neighbour had seen Jean Marie, Mélance and three other Imbonerakure – Shirira, Ndori and Didier – heading towards Ntahondabasigiye’s house. (Imbonerakure usually go by their first names or nicknames.) Local residents knew these Imbonerakure well.

The dramatic nature of the killing attracted media attention in Burundi and a large crowd attended the victim’s funeral. Yet six months on, those responsible for his murder are still free.

Mélance was arrested the day after the murder but was released two weeks later. A local resident said an Imbonerakure came in a vehicle to fetch him from the detention centre in Kabezi when he was released. He has not been re-arrested. An official in the prosecutor’s office began an investigation, but to date, no one else has been arrested in connection with the killing and the investigation appears to have been shelved. The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) wrote to national government officials asking what action the authorities had taken following Ntahondabasigiye’s murder. BHRI also wrote to the prosecutor of Bujumbura province with additional questions about the alleged perpetrators. None of these officials replied.

In the days and weeks after Ntahondabasigiye’s death, three of the Imbonerakure seen near his house on the night of his murder – Mélance, Ndori and Didier – threatened members of his family and warned they would kill them if they continued following up the case.

Ntahondabasigiye had been threatened several times before in connection with his opposition activities. After taking part in public protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term in , he fled Burundi. Upon his return around two years later, he was arrested and imprisoned in Mpimba prison in Bujumbura; he was released in . Imbonerakure continued threatening him after his release.

About two months before his murder, Havyarimana threatened Ntahondabasigiye after he refused to make a financial contribution to the CNDD-FDD. Havyarimana, who was with the Imbonerakure called Shirira, said they had him within their grasp. A local resident recalled that he was with Ntahondabasigiye a few days before his death when Havyarimana walked past and said to Ntahondabasigiye: “I have you in my hand like an egg.”

The exact motive for his murder is not confirmed. However, local residents and other sources close to the case believe he was probably targeted because of his opposition activities and that Havyarimana may have played a role in ordering his murder. Havyarimana categorically denied these allegations. “These are lies,” he stated on . “I hadn’t seen him (Ntahondabasigiye) for a whole week. The morning of his murder, I was attending the registration of voters. I left home very early and came back at . I never met this Désiré.”

Responding to allegations that the Imbonerakure Mélance, Jean Marie and Shirira may have been involved in the murder, Havyarimana replied: “I know Shirira... I was with him all day. At the time of the murder, I was with him... These are political agendas. They just want to get rid of the CNDD-FDD leaders. I haven’t seen Jean Marie for a long time... I don’t know the motives for this murder. I don’t even know where this Désiré lives. I’m sure Shirira doesn’t know him. Actually, initially I thought he had committed suicide. You have to look (for the answer) within his family.” He brushed aside allegations that he had threatened the victim on the morning of his death: “I have never been in contact with Désiré Ntahondabasigiye... We don’t talk to each other.”

Bujumbura province (formerly known as Bujumbura Rural) has long been a stronghold of the CNL. During Burundi’s armed conflict in the and , the Parti pour la libération du peuple hutu-Forces nationales de libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL) – the armed group that later turned into a political party, the FNL, then changed its name to CNL in  – used the area as its main base and carried out attacks on the city of Bujumbura. Even after the FNL demobilised and registered as a political party in , the area continued to be the scene of political tensions and violence, with members of the security forces and Imbonerakure targeting members of the FNL and, more recently, the CNL. Since the current political crisis in Burundi erupted in , local residents have regularly reported political tensions and killings in the province.

In the second half of , there were reported clashes between unidentified armed men and the police and military in Kanyosha and Nyabiraba communes. Many CNL members were arrested in the wake of these events, which some sources claimed had been staged by the authorities in order to blame them on the CNL and weaken their main rival before the elections. Some Imbonerakure participated in the staged attack, pretending to be combatants. Gruesome images of some of the alleged combatants who were killed circulated on social media.

A few weeks later, on , Méthuselah Nahishakiye, head of the CNL on Migera hill, Kabezi commune, was shot dead at around , close to his parents’ house where he was staying. He had multiple gunshot wounds on his legs, arms, stomach, chest and face. The identity of the perpetrators is not known.

In the previous weeks, Nahishakiye, around 25 years old, had fled his home after being threatened by local Imbonerakure and other CNDD-FDD members who were reportedly unhappy with his activities to mobilise people to join the CNL. A friend said that on the day of his burial, Imbonerakure on motorcycles followed the funeral procession and cut through it, chanting threatening slogans.

Twelve people, most of them CNL members, were arrested and questioned after the murder. Eight were released on and four were transferred to Mpimba prison in Bujumbura. These arrests are typical of a pattern in the aftermath of human rights violations against CNL members: the authorities commonly arrest other CNL members, often on spurious grounds, while CNDD-FDD members named by witnesses as the alleged perpetrators escape justice.

In , a CNDD-FDD member said that a judicial police officer had given a local government official blank arrest warrants to fill in with the names of CNL members in his area. Dozens of CNL members were arrested in Bujumbura province in the pre-election period, many of them arbitrarily, as the government sought to obstruct the CNL’s activities before the polls.

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

Fauzia Basesuwabo : Opposition party member, mother of 10, beaten to death by ruling party youth. Beaten on 26 February 2020. Died on 4 March. Muyinga province.

Fauzia Basesuwabo

Opposition party member, mother of 10, beaten to death by ruling party youth

When members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, targeted Fauzia Basesuwabo’s husband and sons because they were opposition party members, she tried to escape. Imbonerakure caught her and beat her mercilessly. The following account details the brutality of the Imbonerakure that led to her death.

Two members of the opposition party Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) were minding their own business, walking down the road in Muyinga province on when Aloys Niyoyita, alias Gihori, passed by on a motorcycle. The driver slammed on the brakes and Gihori unleashed a tirade of insults, calling them “CNL dogs”, accusing them of holding an illegal meeting, and saying he and his fellow Imbonerakure were going to start shooting CNL members.

A heated discussion and a skirmish ensued, in which one of the CNL members hit Gihori with a piece of wood, opening a gash on his head. The two CNL members then fled the scene.

It’s unclear what provoked Gihori to insult them, but the day before, during a public meeting in Jani hill, an influential member of the Imbonerakure told the crowd: “We should chase after (CNL members) until their feet burn. Even those under their mosquito nets will be caught and destroyed.” He said that anywhere people see a member of the CNL, they should tie them up and that the CNL should be hated and banished from public places like bars and markets. Such threats would soon be put into action in Jani.

This kind of rhetoric, which was prevalent long before the elections, has had devastating consequences. In remote areas, threats and violence are a part of daily life and the facts surrounding them often remain hidden in the hills. Local authorities – some of whom may be involved in abuses or fear the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD – know the power of the Imbonerakure and when to defer to them.

Muyinga province is no exception. On in Giteranyi commune, for example, Imbonerakure beat a CNL member, looted his house and stole 200,000 Burundian francs (approximately US$105). When judicial police officers finally interviewed the victim four days later, they didn’t seem interested in the facts of the case. The Imbonerakure who beat the victim most harshly was seen a few days later drinking beer with local policemen. The victim contacted the prosecutor in Muyinga and judicial officials struck a deal with the Imbonerakure: they would compensate the victim, but wouldn’t be punished. At the time of writing, they had largely done so, but no other action was taken against them for beating him.

In Giteranyi commune in , Imbonerakure burned down the house of a woman who had become tired of their frequent demands for financial contributions. In , Imbonerakure detained a 35-year-old CNL member because, they said: “He was an idiot and they wanted to educate him.” His wife hasn’t seen him since.

The clash in Jani between Gihori and the CNL members evolved into one of the most brutal attacks in Muyinga in months. It offers a glimpse into how quickly Imbonerakure can marshal fellow members, incite them to violence and collectively focus their rage on a single family.

Angry and bleeding from the head after the fight with the two CNL members, Gihori called local Imbonerakure on the telephone to hunt down members of the CNL in the area. Word quickly spread, and a large group of Imbonerakure converged on the house of Selemani Rwasa, a CNL member who lived in Jani and whose son was involved in the fight with Gihori.

Other Imbonerakure went to the nearby home of Sosthène Murasandonyi, alias Gahindira, the CNL representative of the same hill, who had locked himself in his house for protection. A witness said Murasandonyi believed Imbonerakure were going to kill him, so he armed himself with a small hoe and attempted to repel the Imbonerakure who had started destroying his house to reach him.

Gihori arrived at Selemani Rwasa’s house followed by a large group of Imbonerakure from Jani and neighboring hills chanting: “Hit them! Hit them!”. Gihori was armed with a machete and a small hoe. Initially, Rwasa and his sons attempted to defend themselves with whatever objects they could find. Gihori grabbed a piece of firewood and fought with Rwasa who had a machete that he’d been using for farm work.

Witnesses said they heard Gihori warn that he was going to take revenge for the earlier incident by “killing at least three people” from Rwasa’s family. Other Imbonerakure said they were going to beat them until they were incapable of harvesting the beans they had planted.

When a large group of Imbonerakure led by the chef de colline (local official) of Jani, Joseph Ndayizeye, arrived, Rwasa and his three sons surrendered, and his sons were tied up. A witness said that Ndayizeye carried a large stick and a spear.

In the chaos, Fauzia Basesuwabo, 54, Rwasa’s wife, fled on foot to a nearby valley. She later told a local resident that Imbonerakure caught her. Some of them wanted to let her go, but two of them, Jean Nshimirimana alias Nzabampema and Innocent Cinyeretse, refused. Nzabampema told her: “Even if the others let you go, I’m going to deal with you until you die.” They beat her hard with clubs on the kidneys, the ribs and on the chest. After the beating, Nzabampema escorted Basesuwabo to her house.

An eyewitness described the scene that was unfolding at Rwasa’s house: “(Imbonerakure) had clubs (and) electric cables that they used as whips; they had ropes (like those) used to tie baggage on bicycles. (One of them) had a spear while Iddy (Niyonzima), the CNDD-FDD representative in Jani, had a board studded with nails. One person in the group had an axe.”

Some of the Imbonerakure, along with Ndayizeye, beat Rwasa and his three sons. Ndayizeye stopped beating them when he received a phone call. It’s not known who called him, but when he hung up, he announced that police were coming and told Imbonerakure: “If you want me to stay as chef de colline, don’t target their heads.”

Two policemen arrived on a motorcycle and ordered the men’s hands to be untied. They left with two Imbonerakure, Ndunguye and Saduni Gahungu, and two CNL members, Sosthène Murasandonyi and a local businessman named Jean Claude, and then sent them to the police detention centre in Muyinga. According to a source with first-hand local knowledge, Jean Claude had been involved in a business dispute with Gihori – a possible reason for his arrest.

Basesuwabo had arrived home after her beating, just before the police came. As she wasn’t bleeding or showing any visible wounds, the two policemen decided she didn’t need to be taken to the health centre. They ordered motorcycle drivers to take Rwasa and his three sons, who were seriously wounded, to the health centre. At around , an ambulance transferred them from the health centre to the district hospital.

Basesuwabo attempted to walk the 3 kilometres to the health centre that evening, but she was in too much pain to walk the distance – or return home – so she curled up in a banana grove and spent the night there. The next day, a relative helped her walk to the health centre where she was given a few pills.

On , the administrator of Gasorwe commune, Jean Claude Barutwanayo, held a meeting in Jani to pacify local residents. A person who attended the meeting said the administrator thanked the Imbonerakure for their work, which residents took to mean the attack on Rwasa and his family. He exhorted the Imbonerakure to continue to work without fear or hesitation.

Meanwhile, Basesuwabo’s condition was deteriorating. By , she had returned to the health centre where she spent the night but was given no specialised care. She returned home and her condition deteriorated further. She died on . According to a relative, “she had no problems with any family members or neighbours. She loved the (CNL) party.”

After her death, the chef de colline, Joseph Ndayizeye, went to the health centre and attempted to persuade the health worker who treated Basesuwabo to attribute her death to malaria. The health worker allegedly refused. In a public meeting, Ndayizeye warned residents of Jani that if anyone said Basesuwabo had been beaten to death, they would be “physically eliminated”. He told everyone to say she died of malaria.

About two weeks after the attack, police released the two Imbonerakure from detention. Cyprien Sinzotuma, the CNDD-FDD provincial secretary, gave each of them 25 kilograms of rice. Sinzotuma has used violent language when talking about opponents in the past. In , according to media accounts, he told Imbonerakure they would “cut up the enemies of Burundi for the raptors” and they should “castrate” them.

A few days later, at a public meeting, Jean Claude Barutwanayo thanked the Imbonerakure Ndunguye while referring to the attacks against Rwasa and Murasandonyi. According to a person present at the meeting, he called Ndunguye a hero who had led and won a “praiseworthy fight”. The administrator encouraged him to continue working in the same way.

Rwasa and other victims of the attack went to see the governor of Muyinga province on , but she wasn’t available. Instead, her advisor met them, along with Barutwanayo. According to a person with knowledge of the meeting, Barutwanayo told the CNL members to either return to their homes or flee to Rwanda or Tanzania – Muyinga province borders both countries. Three days later, Barutwanayo organised a meeting between Rwasa, Gihori and Ndayizeye, the chef de colline. Barutwanayo, who had apparently discussed the case with senior officials, told Rwasa he could return to Jani and he assured his safety. He also said that he should cut off contact with the CNL and join the CNDD-FDD.

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) wrote to national government officials asking what action the authorities had taken on Basesuwabo’s death. BHRI also wrote to the governor and prosecutor of Muyinga province with additional questions about the alleged perpetrators. None of these officials replied. BHRI phoned Joseph Ndayizeye, the chef de colline of Jani, to ask for his response. He said he would not comment on human rights issues and told BHRI to call the commune (the local government office).

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

Albert Niyondiko : Wanted for years, shot dead in front of a shack. Killed on 9 March 2020 in a police and intelligence operation. Bururi province.

Albert Niyondiko

Wanted for years, shot dead in front of a shack

In the early hours of , Albert Niyondiko was shot dead on the doorstep of a shack on Gakaranka hill, Mugamba commune (Bururi province), where he had spent the night.

It’s unclear by whom and how exactly Niyondiko was killed, but multiple witnesses said police and intelligence officials were involved in the operation. They had surrounded the compound for several hours, waiting for Niyondiko to come out.

Neighbours hid in fear when they heard the gunshots. When some of them approached the scene to find out what had happened, police kept them at a distance and ordered a quick burial of Niyondiko’s body, in the absence of his family. A police officer warned the family against giving him a proper burial, because “a criminal cannot be buried with dignity.”

Members of the police and intelligence services had been looking for Niyondiko for several years. Government officials suspected him of being a member of an armed opposition group and of owning a gun. Rather than arresting and prosecuting him, however, when they eventually tracked him down, they killed him on the spot. Even a senior police officer who rushed to the scene expressed his dismay: “Why did you kill him when he was unarmed? You should have arrested him!”, a witness heard him say to other security officers.

Several local residents confirmed they had recently seen the victim with a gun and said the police had found a gun in the shack, but doubted that Niyondiko had used it to defend himself. There were rumours that he had wounded a security officer or had been hit with a machete, but neighbours were too afraid to ask for an inquiry into the circumstances that led to his death. The presence of many intelligence and police officers, some of whom had travelled from neighbouring Makamba province or from Bujumbura before and after the operation, and the arrests of several acquaintances of Niyondiko, were sufficient to keep them silent.

Niyondiko wasn’t the first person suspected of possessing weapons or belonging to an armed group killed by members of the security services in recent months in southwestern Burundi. The area, in particular Mugamba commune, has experienced several waves of violence since Burundi’s current political crisis erupted. In , in contrast with many other rural areas, hundreds took to the streets in Mugamba to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term.

As was the case in Bujumbura, the police cracked down hard on these protests, killing a student, according to the national human rights commission, and arresting many other people. Some of the more radical demonstrators turned to violence. In late and early , armed men carried out several attacks in Mugamba, targeting local officials and people suspected of collaborating with the security services. The latter responded with violent counter-operations, including in Gakaranka. In , President Nkurunziza issued an ultimatum for assailants in Mugamba to surrender or face the consequences. Many have since been arrested, killed or gone into exile.

Niyondiko was one of the exceptions. During the demonstrations, he had been involved in mobilising protesters and was a member of the opposition party Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD). Several sources believe he later joined the armed opposition, but he never left his native area, where he herded his cows and harvested his crops.

Because he knew he was on the radar of the security services, he kept a low profile and rarely slept at home. Police attempted to arrest him multiple times, but he always escaped. In the days preceding his death, he had been staying in a shack owned by a local businessman, where he was eventually killed.

So how did police and intelligence agents track him down? Some sources said local residents had helped intelligence agents identify where Niyondiko was staying. But there may have been other interests at play. A resident of Gakaranka said: “This commune (Mugamba) has been the stronghold of opponents of those currently in power. As he (Niyondiko) was a member of an opposition party, the MSD, they wanted to intimidate people in the area to make them switch sides (to join the ruling party).”

In the past, residents of Mugamba and some neighbouring communes have been known to support opposition parties popular among the Tutsi ethnic group, especially the MSD that was suspended in . Many also supported the Union pour le progrès national (UPRONA), the ruling party from to . All three of Burundi’s presidents and many Tutsi military leaders during UPRONA’s harsh authoritarian rule came from Bururi province. More recently, UPRONA and the MSD have both been significantly weakened and do not currently pose a serious political challenge to the CNDD-FDD, which is dominated by members of the majority Hutu ethnic group. However, they still enjoy support in Bururi and neighbouring Rumonge – the only two provinces in which UPRONA secured parliamentary seats in . According to the election results, the main opposition party Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) obtained many more votes in Bururi than in other rural areas.

The killing of Niyondiko sent a strong signal that anyone who opposes the ruling party, violently or not, would not be tolerated in the months preceding the elections. In neighbouring Makamba province, a local police commissioner used the crackdown in Bururi to intimidate opponents. According to several people who attended a meeting with motorcycle drivers on , Prosper Kazungu said: “If you don’t stop rising up against the authorities, you’ll get to know me. Go and ask people in Mugamba. They considered themselves to be from an impenetrable zone. Go and ask them. We have seriously corrected them. All you have to do is kill a few (people), then the others surrender. If you want to suffer the same fate, go ahead.”

Kazungu was probably referring not only to the killing of Niyondiko, but also to other incidents in areas near Mugamba. On , the ministry of public security tweeted that members of the security services had killed three criminals in Matana commune, just next to Mugamba. They reportedly included Pascal Ninganza, known as Kaburimbo, the main target of the operation. In , Senate president Révérien Ndikuriyo said he had offered 5 million Burundian francs (approximately US$2,590) to bring Kaburimbo to him “alive or dead”, accusing him of providing military training to opponents. On the night of , police officers killed another man accused of illegally possessing a weapon, Onesphore Mukamarakiza, in nearby Burambi commune (Rumonge province).

The authorities are not known to have investigated whether the use of lethal force was necessary in these operations. The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) wrote to national government officials and to the prosecutor and police commissioner of Bururi province, requesting information on any inquiry into these cases. They did not respond.

Impunity for members of the security services who commit human rights violations is widespread in Burundi. While no security officers have been arrested in relation to the killing of Niyondiko, several other people have been detained. One of them, a 17-year-old domestic worker who was in the shack where Niyondiko was killed, was seriously beaten after his arrest. Other local residents who were arrested, including the chef de colline (local official) of Gakaranka, have since been released. Three remain in detention, including the domestic worker.

On , the police arrested Boniface Ntaguzwa, the head of a neighbouring hill who had been a member of the former Burundian army, the Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), accusing him of collaborating with armed groups and of failing to inform authorities about the presence of wanted individuals in his locality. However, some local residents believe that the real reason for his arrest and detention may have been linked to personal rivalry over a local administrative position. Despite a court ordering his provisional release on , Ntaguzwa remained in detention until . The police also arrested family members and acquaintances of those killed in Matana and Burambi.

Such arrests have heightened the fear among families of victims to demand justice. When BHRI asked a family member in one of these cases whether they had submitted a formal complaint to the authorities, he replied: “Let me ask you a question. Where would we submit such a complaint? The same people who would receive the complaint are the perpetrators of this violence. We have nowhere to go.”

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

Évariste Nyabenda : Beaten to death for trying to help another victim. Beaten on 13 October 2019. Died on 7 November. Ngozi province.

Évariste Nyabenda

Beaten to death for trying to help another victim

Évariste Nyabenda, 22, was a bar owner and a member of the main opposition party in Burundi, the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL). He lived on Burenza hill, Nyamugari zone, Marangara commune, in Ngozi province.

Nyabenda had protested the ill-treatment of a customer in his bar by local members of the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party – the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD). This simple action would cost him his life.

Scores of CNL members were arrested, beaten, and, in some cases, killed, by Imbonerakure in the months leading up to the elections in Burundi. Nyabenda’s case highlights the brutality of Imbonerakure well before the election period. Killings of CNL members were already taking place in , and even earlier – the CNDD-FDD was setting the stage to crush all competition during the elections.

The trouble began on . Local residents said a group of Imbonerakure from Burenza and three neighbouring hills, who had gathered in an area near Nyabenda’s bar, had been chanting threatening slogans against their political opponents. One of them, Jean Havyarimana, head of the Imbonerakure on Runda hill, ordered Imbonerakure to “go and cut down big sticks to beat anyone who is not an Imbonerakure”. Eyewitnesses said Havyarimana played a leading role in the events that followed, along with Déo Nahimana, head of the Imbonerakure in Burenza; Léonidas Misago, head of the CNDD-FDD in Burenza and deputy head of the local government administration on the hill; and other local CNDD-FDD and Imbonerakure leaders.

After a tense exchange between Havyarimana and a customer who had refused to share his drink with him, another man, Simon Kanyamirimo, suggested to his cousin that they leave the bar because the atmosphere was turning sour. Kanyamirimo and his cousin, Pascal Nzobiturimana, both CNL members, were afraid the Imbonerakure might start attacking their opponents.

Havyarimana overheard Kanyamirimo’s comment, asked him to repeat what he had said, then punched him in the chest. Kanyamirimo and his cousin fled, but several Imbonerakure ran after them and caught them outside. A witness heard Havyarimana say to Kanyamirimo: “I’m going to tie you up. Anyway, you’re a member of the CNL.” Several Imbonerakure tied Kanyamirimo’s arms behind his back, threw him on the ground, kicked him and stamped on his stomach and chest with military-style boots (Imbonerakure are commonly seen wearing military or police clothing). They also beat his cousin and another man, Élias Ndagijimana.

Nyabenda, who was present at the scene, tried to intervene and asked why they were beating Kanyamirimo; he offered to pay if it was a matter of money. The Imbonerakure then set upon Nyabenda. At least five of them, including Havyarimana, pushed him into a ditch, beat him hard and tied up his arms. They then pushed to the ground a CNDD-FDD member, Sébastien Nahimana, who protested at the way they were beating Nyabenda, tied him up too and beat him with a stick.

Eyewitnesses identified at least 10 Imbonerakure involved in these assaults; they knew their names, places of residence and positions in the youth league or CNDD-FDD hierarchy. A witness heard one of the Imbonerakure, who is also a local administrative official, boast to onlookers: “We’re allowed to kill, no problem. We’ll say he ran away and hit a tree” – a comment that illustrates the defiance of Imbonerakure who know they will not be held to account for their actions. Local residents tried to call for help, and the head of another hill told the Imbonerakure to let Nyabenda go, but the Imbonerakure continued beating him.

A group of at least 10 Imbonerakure and other CNDD-FDD members, accompanied by the head of Burenza hill (a local government official), then took the five men they had beaten to the local detention centre in Nyamugari. Nyabenda was in such pain he could barely walk; the Imbonerakure had to push him and lift him to make him move forward while he screamed. Witnesses who saw him soon after his arrest said that his chest was covered in wounds and that he complained of severe pains in his chest and stomach.

The policemen at the detention centre knew nothing about the incident and asked the Imbonerakure if there was an arrest warrant for the men they wanted to detain. The Imbonerakure replied that they didn’t need a warrant and ordered the police to lock up the five men. A witness said: “An Imbonerakure... came with the keys to the cell and opened it to lock (them) up. There were two policemen in post there, but they didn’t know what was going on.” This conduct is typical of the way some Imbonerakure illegally arrest people and take the law into their own hands, bypassing the police.

Two days later, Nyabenda and Ndagijimana left the detention centre; according to one source, they were supposed to go and collect money to pay for their release. Corruption in the justice system is rife and bribery is often the easiest way to secure someone’s release. The other three detainees were transferred to a detention centre in Marangara commune, then released.

Although Nyabenda was seriously injured, he didn’t dare go to the hospital in case he was re-arrested. Eventually, as his condition worsened, a friend took him to Kiremba hospital in Ngozi on . He died there six days later, on . The death certificate states that he died as a result of blows to his body.

Some of the other detainees beaten on also suffered long-term effects from their injuries after their release. One of them said that the beatings had left him unable to work in his field or to lift heavy bags three months after the incident.

Local residents mentioned that the head of the Imbonerakure in Burenza, Déo Nahimana, held a grudge against Nyabenda from a past incident, in which Nyabenda had witnessed him slapping another man and stealing his phone and money in Nyabenda’s bar. The man had reported the case to the authorities, with Nyabenda’s support, and Nahimana was made to pay a fine.

Even after his death, Imbonerakure harassed and threatened Nyabenda’s family and friends. On the night of his burial, Imbonerakure damaged Nyabenda’s house where the mourning ceremony was taking place; they smashed the roof tiles and broke the windows and door. Witnesses recognised and named at least five of them, including Havyarimana and others who had taken part in the fatal attack on Nyabenda.

Instead of arresting the alleged culprits, the authorities arrested 17 CNL members who had been at Nyabenda’s house that night – one woman and 16 men, including the head of the CNL in Marangara commune. They accused them of attacking Havyarimana’s house, which had allegedly been damaged too, and charged them with attempted murder and destruction of property. Some local residents claimed the attack on Havyarimana’s house had been staged as a pretext to arrest the CNL members.

On , Nyabenda’s wife wrote to the prosecutor of Ngozi, Alfred Franck Ngomanziza, asking him to investigate the death of her husband, issue a summons for five named Imbonerakure and ensure her safety. The prosecutor told her to wait and promised to contact her.

Seven months on, she has still not received a reply to her letter or heard back from the prosecutor, who is not known to have opened a case file on Nyabenda’s murder. None of the Imbonerakure cited by witnesses as involved in beating him or attacking his house have been arrested. Instead, the 17 accused of attacking Havyarimana’s house remain in prison, awaiting judgment in their trial.

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) wrote to national government officials requesting information on action taken in relation to Nyabenda’s murder; they did not reply. BHRI also wrote to the prosecutor of Ngozi province with additional questions about the alleged perpetrators. The prosecutor thanked BHRI for its “very useful letter”, but did not respond on the substance of the case.

In the run-up to the elections, tensions between the CNL and the CNDD-FDD were high in Ngozi, the home province of both the CNL leader Agathon Rwasa and outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died suddenly on . Rwasa held his first election campaign rally in Ngozi on . Imbonerakure have committed numerous abuses against CNL members in Ngozi in late and in the first half of . Dozens of CNL members were arrested in the province during the pre-election period.

Évariste Nyabenda is not the only CNL member to have been beaten to death in Ngozi province. On , Nestor Nsengiyumva, a CNL member from Gashikanwa commune, was beaten at a bar in Kinyovu, in Nyamurenza commune, by two groups of Imbonerakure. Witnesses said the Imbonerakure accused him of violating an order by local authorities in Nyamurenza prohibiting CNL members from other communes from travelling there to open their local headquarters. However, Nsengiyumva had not come to Nyamurenza for that purpose: he had stopped off at the bar after his motorcycle broke down nearby. The Imbonerakure threatened the man with whom Nsengiyumva was having a drink, warning him he should disappear by the time they counted to three. After first beating Nsengiyumva in the bar, they then took him outside, beat him along the way, then dumped him in a wooded area near the border between Gashikanwa and Nyamurenza. He died in Ngozi hospital the next day.

In the moments before his death, Nsengiyumva named at least four Imbonerakure who had beaten him. Eyewitnesses named several others. In , Nsengiyumva’s relatives filed a complaint with the office of the prosecutor general at the court of appeal in Ngozi, which issued a summons for some of the Imbonerakure alleged to have beaten Nsengiyumva, but to date, none of them have been arrested.

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

Jean Bosco Ngabirano : Local government official orders ruling party youth to kill opposition member. Killed on 29 March 2020 by ruling party youth. Gitega province.

Jean Bosco Ngabirano

Local government official orders ruling party youth to kill opposition member

On , Jean Bosco Ngabirano, a member of the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), was sitting in a bar in Mahwa zone, in Gitega province, when members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, who were sitting a few tables away, started singing songs praising the ruling party. Ngabirano and those with him countered them with songs of the CNL.

A few hours later, Seconde Ndayisenga, the administrator of Ryansoro commune (the most senior local government official), arrived and tensions flared. The Imbonerakure told the administrator that Ngabirano was a thief and a troublemaker from neighbouring Bururi province. An eyewitness in the bar said the administrator called Ngabirano over, and they had a tense exchange. It is not known what they discussed.

After the exchange, according to a witness and media reports, the administrator ordered a policeman to “shoot that dog”, referring to Ngabirano. Ngabirano fled, pursued by the policeman. The policeman then returned to the bar, saying he didn’t want shoot him. According to the same sources, Ndayisenga then asked Imbonerakure in the bar to catch and kill Ngabirano.

It’s unclear how the Imbonerakure caught Ngabirano. One source said that they blocked the roads near the bar and stopped Ngabirano at place called ku kabishato in Mahwa.

A man in his 60s said he had passed by the Institut technique agricole du Burundi (ITAB) in Mahwa when he heard screams. He heard someone say: “You swore that you would bring the entire population of Mahwa to the CNL. It’s over. You’ll no longer succeed.” Then two young men approached him. “They made me get on my knees,” he said. “One carried a knife and the other a spear. They ordered me to leave; (they told me to) run.” Imbonerakure prevented other passers-by from approaching the place.

In an article by Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) on , Elie Nimubona, an Imbonerakure leader in Mahwa allegedly involved in the attack, said Ngabirano wasn’t killed for political reasons. “Don’t let them claim that he was a member of the CNL. Let them admit rather that he was a thief. He wasn’t a victim of his political beliefs.”

A CNL senior official, however, confirmed to the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) that Ngabirano was a party member.

Two sources, independent of one another, as well as a media report, named Imbonerakure allegedly involved in attacking Ngabirano: Nimubona, Donatien Ciza, Vianney Manirakiza, Gode Ntigoheka, and a man named Bienvenu. One witness said he saw these Imbonerakure chasing Ngabirano.

Students found Ngabirano’s body the next day near ITAB. Family members and media reports claim Ngabirano’s body had been mutilated. BHRI was unable to confirm these allegations. In a photo seen by BHRI, Ngabirano’s face had the markings of what appeared to have been a severe beating, with his eyes swollen shut. Residents and family members refused to bury his body until those responsible were arrested. Ngabirano’s body lay in the Mahwa health centre for four days.

According to a member of Ngabirano’s family, a judicial official visited the crime scene, but didn’t complete a police report, despite residents offering him information about the Imbonerakure allegedly responsible for the killing.

The family member asked the judicial official on why he hadn’t completed a judicial report. He claimed he hadn’t gone to the crime scene. Another family member strongly refuted this, saying he had spoken to the judicial official while he was at the crime scene and had asked him to arrest one of the men allegedly involved in the killing.

Ndayisenga, the commune administrator, did not visit the crime scene but instead sent the chef de colline from Mahwa, a lower-level local official. There was confusion over whom Ndayisenga had delegated to bury Ngabirano’s body. At first, it seemed she had asked a family member to organise the burial. Then Ndayisenga ordered the chef de colline from Mahwa to bury the body. The official, however, claimed Ndayisenga had not given him clear instructions about how to procure or pay for the materials for the burial. When Ngabirano’s family member confronted Ndayisenga about this confusion on the phone, she told him to deal with the burial himself: “I put it in your hands. Do it. And if you don’t do it, leave me alone. I have other work to do.” The family member responded: “(How) can you tell me that you’re an authority, (but) you have other things to do while someone was killed in your sector?” Ndayisenga hung up the phone.

Two days after Ngabirano’s death, a family member asked a judicial official why arrest warrants had not been issued for those alleged to have killed Ngabirano. “My brother,” the official replied, “I’m not going to issue those warrants. Regarding the death (of Ngabirano), even the administrator is complicit. Stop wearing yourself out over this. These people (who killed Ngabirano) are ‘supported’.” The judicial official was referring to how Imbonerakure are often protected by ruling party officials and shielded from justice.

A policeman later told the same family member that the Imbonerakure who had allegedly killed Ngabirano were not going to be arrested: “We didn’t fail to arrest these people; these people are ‘supported’.”

On the evening of , Venant Manirambona, the governor of Gitega, arrived in Mahwa. He asked residents what happened the evening Ngabirano was killed. According to sources close to the victim, the governor asked Ngabirano’s father to get into his truck and they drove to the health centre. The governor told him that they were going to bury Ngabirano. When they arrived, the policeman, who accompanied the governor, slapped the security guard at the health centre who refused to open the door to the room holding Ngabirano’s body. The security guard then opened the door and police loaded Ngabirano’s body into the truck.

The policeman and other unidentified men buried Ngabirano’s body in a cemetery in Mahwa while the governor looked on.

BHRI wrote to national government officials asking what action the authorities had taken following Ngabirano’s murder. BHRI also wrote to the governor and the prosecutor of Gitega province with additional questions about the alleged perpetrators. Only the governor of Gitega replied, simply asking for information about BHRI and its relations with the Burundian government; he did not comment on the case. BHRI phoned the administrator of Ryansoro commune, Seconde Ndayisenga, and asked for her response to the killing of Ngabirano; she would not reply to any questions.

Download the case study in English, French or Kirundi.

For further information about the series, read “The Deadly Price of Opposition”.

What is the Burundi Human Rights Initiative?

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) is an independent human rights project that aims to document the evolving human rights situation in Burundi, with a particular focus on events linked to the elections. It intends to expose the drivers of human rights violations with a view to establishing an accurate record that will help bring justice to Burundians and find a solution to the ongoing human rights crisis.

The BHRI’s publications will also analyse the political and social context in which these violations occur to provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of human rights trends in Burundi.

The BHRI has no political affiliation. Its investigations cover human rights violations by the Burundian government as well as abuses by armed opposition groups.

Carina Tertsakian, Lane Hartill and Thijs Van Laer lead the BHRI and are its principal researchers. They have worked on human rights issues in Burundi and the Great Lakes region of Africa for many years. The BHRI’s reports are the products of their collaboration with a wide range of people inside and outside Burundi.