Deadly police response to protests in Burundi: Watch 

Burundi

May 31, Nairobi: Burundian police have used excessive force in a crackdown on protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s election bid for a third term, Human Rights Watch said today.

Witness accounts indicate that police have shot and beaten people, in some cases when they posed no apparent threat. The authorities have closed down a number of radio stations and threatened journalists, human rights activists, and medical personnel.

“The Burundian authorities should call a halt to the crackdown on peaceful opponents and critics,” saidDaniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should order the police to stop using excessive deadly force, investigate the deaths and beatings of protesters at the hands of police, and hold those responsible for excessive force to account.”

Restrictions on movements in the capital, and pervasive fear among the population, have made it difficult to confirm the exact number of victims. Based on interviews with medical personnel and other sources, Human Rights Watch believes that since demonstrations began on April 26, 2015, at least 27 people have been killed during the demonstrations or died from wounds inflicted during the demonstrations. Others have been killed in separate incidents. More than 300 people have been injured. It is likely that the overall number of dead is higher.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets after the murder on May 23 of Zedi Feruzi, president of the opposition party Union for Peace and Democracy-Zigamibanga (Union pour la paix et la démocratie-Zigabimanga). Human Rights Watch has not yet confirmed the circumstances of his death. A statement on the Burundian presidency’s website described it as “a despicable assassination” and promised an investigation.

Police have responded aggressively to protests, with repeated clashes in several suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura. While many protesters have been peaceful, some have used violence. Witnesses say police have shot demonstrators indiscriminately – sometimes at point-blank range – in the head, neck, and chest. Medical personnel, witnesses, and a victim of a shooting told Human Rights Watch that some people were shot in the back as they fled. Medical staff in Bujumbura are treating more than 100 people with serious injuries.

Medical personnel, journalists, and human rights defenders have received death threats and menacing phone calls, and been intimidated and harassed by the authorities. Many of those who were threatened have gone into hiding or fled the country.

Public protests began in Bujumbura, on April 26. On May 13, a group of military officers attempted a coup and announced that Nkurunziza had been dismissed. Following heavy fighting between their supporters and members of the army loyal to Nkurunziza, the coup leaders announced on May 14 that their attempt had failed and they would surrender. Several officers allegedly involved in the coup attempt have been arrested. The whereabouts of their leader, Godefroid Niyombare, remain unknown.

Following the failed coup, demonstrators resumed their protests in Bujumbura on May 18, defying government orders to stop and warnings that demonstrators would be treated as supporters of the coup attempt.

In a May 18 statement, the External Relations and International Cooperation Ministry said that “the demonstrators will be treated as accomplices of the putschists as they are obstructing investigations into the putsch attempt and deliberately disturbing public order.” In contrast, a May 19 news release from the president’s office said that the government was not planning to take revenge, and that those involved in the coup attempt would be arrested and brought to justice according to the law.

Peaceful protesters and critics of the government should not be lumped together with those who attempted to overthrow the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Since demonstrations began, Burundian police have arrested hundreds of people, according to a Burundian police spokesperson and Burundian human rights organizations. They also beat detainees, witnesses and lawyers told Human Rights Watch. The Imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kirundi) – members of the youth league of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) – have also been implicated in beatings and threats.

Some of those killed or injured were taking part in protests while others were targeted in or near their homes. Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people with gunshot wounds who had been shot in various neighborhoods of Bujumbura, and obtained bullet casings from the Musaga neighborhood after police had shot at demonstrators there. A policeman confirmed to Human Rights Watch that some police had shot live ammunition and blank cartridges at protesters in Mutakura and Musaga neighborhoods during the first week of the demonstrations.

One man told Human Rights Watch that he was sitting near a road, away from protests, in the Cibitoke neighborhood on April 28 when four policemen approached him and told him to stand up. He stood up with his hands in the air. A policeman shot him at point blank range in the leg. He fell down, and the policeman said: “I got you.” The policeman picked up a stone as if to throw it at him. When other people arrived, the policemen fled. In another case, a victim said police shot him, then stomped on his head and body. He survived.

Some demonstrators have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, and used slingshots with stones, marbles, and other projectiles. Demonstrators have attacked people perceived to be Imbonerakure and policemen they accused of targeting demonstrators. Demonstrators who carry out violent attacks should be brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

The president’s main communications adviser, Willy Nyamitwe, told Human Rights Watch: “There are perhaps policemen who used too much force and others who were misguided. You need to recognize also that demonstrators are committing human rights abuses and they aren’t being reported.” He said some policemen had been arrested because “they used live ammunition against demonstrators” and added: “The president was clear: no act [of violence] will go unpunished. And that also goes for the demonstrators.”

The deputy police spokesman, Pierre Nkurikiye, said on May 25 that six police officers had been killed and at least 126 injured since the protests began. Nkurikiye said four policemen in Bujumbura were arrested for shooting at people. Three were provisionally released and one was still in custody. Investigations into all four cases are ongoing.

During demonstrations, the police should abide by the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

Several hundred demonstrators and onlookers have been arrested since the protests began. Police figures indicate that 892 people were arrested in connection with the protests between April 26 and May 12. The deputy police spokesperson told Human Rights Watch in a meeting that police released 568 people, the majority of them minors or bystanders. The cases of 280 detainees had been transferred to the public prosecutor’s office. During the coup attempt, people ransacked the police detention center known as Bureau spécial de recherche (BSR) and released about 50 detainees.

The Burundian government should immediately restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly, including the freedom to demonstrate peacefully, allow radio stations to broadcast, and stop harassing journalists and human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments and intergovernmental organizations, particularly the African Union, should pursue diplomatic efforts and impress upon the Burundian government the necessity to restore respect for fundamental human rights, as a precondition to peaceful and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Security Council should consider conducting a new mission to Burundi and make clear to all actors in Burundi that in the event of serious or widespread human rights violations, those responsible may face sanctions.

The UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights special rapporteurs covering freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of assembly and association; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and the situation of human rights defenders should urgently visit Burundi and investigate recent abuses.

Human Rights Watch also encouraged the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to increase its monitoring capacity in Burundi and keep the Human Rights Council informed of developments. The Office of the High Commissioner should document human rights violations through its country presence in Burundi and regularly and publicly report on its findings.

“Restraint is needed on all sides in Burundi,” Bekele said. “The police have the right to control crowds and may need to use force when confronted by violence, but they should do so only when strictly necessary and in a proportionate manner.”

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