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, particularly in the period around 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 . They declined following the elections, but resumed in . BHRI hopes that by shining a light on a few emblematic cases, it can also help spur action to investigate and prosecute perpetrators 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). Hundreds of CNL members were arrested before, during and after the elections, and following attacks by armed groups in and . Dozens were abducted by people believed to be intelligence agents; most of these individuals later turned up in prisons or other detention centres, but others were never seen again. Some were forcibly disappeared and are presumed dead.
BHRI has thoroughly investigated each case 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 most cases featured in this series, the victims were CNL members. 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 service 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 and even fewer credible prosecutions. In one case only, two Imbonerakure were convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for their involvement in the abduction and killing of a CNL member.
Typically, the Imbonerakure allegedly involved in these killings have not been held accountable by the justice system, 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, some in clashes with CNL members or following armed attacks, 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 remain a test for Burundi’s president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, and for the national justice system. Ndayishimiye has repeatedly proclaimed his commitment to ending impunity, including for political violence. He should demonstrate that commitment by advocating for justice for the families of the victims and ensuring they are not forgotten.