Criminalisation of human rights defenders must stop now !

(Brussels) International civil society organisations condemn the pattern of criminalisation of human rights defenders in Burundi and call for the release of those unlawfully convicted to date.

On the occasion of the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the undersigned organisations wish to reiterate their support for the renewal of the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi, as expressed on 8 August 2018 by more than 30 civil society organisations.

As remarked by the Commission’s Chairperson, Mr. Doudou Diène in March 2018, the situation in the country continued to deserve the Council’s “utmost attention.” Particularly dire is the situation of human rights defenders in Burundi, who are systematically criminalized and victimized in a deliberate and continuous attempt to silence civil society voices active in the country.

Only this year Nestor Nibitanga, from human rights organisation APRODH, was convicted to 5 years in prison on 13 August 2018; Aimé Constant Gatore, Marius Nizigama and Emmanuel Nshimirimana, from the rights-based organisation PARCEM, to 10 years in prison on 8 March 2018; and, as a key precedent to all, Germain Rukuki was unlawfully condemned on 26 April 2018 to 32 years in prison, an unprecedented sentence for a human rights defender in Burundi.

The case of Germain Rukuki is emblematic: he was arrested in July 2017 and irregularly kept in detention for almost nine months. When the trial started among procedural irregularities, spurious charges were presented against him - “rebellion”, “breach of the security of the State”, “attacking the authority of the State” and “participation in an insurrectionist movement”- and after two short hearings, he was unlawfully convicted by the Ntahangwa High Court of Burundi to 32 years in prison. Following the trial, on 11 June 2018, Mr Rukuki had to undergo a surgical operation in the Ngozi hospital after he fractured his ankle and injured his right shoulder in prison. He was swiftly transferred back to Ngozi prison on 18 June, although he was still in a critical condition. Mr Rukuki appealed his conviction on 29 May 2018 and, to receive adequate medical treatment, he applied for bail on 26 June, which has not been granted, despite the fact that in prison he is at risk of suffering lifelong sequels.

We also recall that Marie-Claudette Kwizera, former treasurer of the human rights organisation Ligue ITEKA, is still missing since she was kidnapped by agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR) on December 11th, 2015. We fear she may have been murdered in retaliation of her human rights activities.

Ahead of the interactive dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi on 17 September, the undersigned organisations encourage Member and Observer States of the Council, including the Government of Burundi, to:
- support the resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi;
- give attention to the alarming pattern of criminalisation and lack of judicial safeguards for human rights defenders in Burundi;
- call for the release of Germain Rukuki on bail at reasonable conditions for medical and humanitarian reasons, in order for him to have access to the medical care he needs;
- call for the release of all human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Burundi;
- call the authorities to provide information on the situation of Marie-Claudette Kwizera.

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