Increased militia violence could push Burundi ‘over the edge,’ warns UN rights chief

51-year-old Gervais with his wife, four children and two nephews, who paddled across Lake Cahoha, in Northern Burundi, into Rwanda. Photo: ©UNICEF Burundi/Y. Nijimbere/2015

9 June 2015 – Deeply worried at the increasingly violent and threatening actions by a pro-government militia in Burundi, the United Nations human rights chief today urged the national authorities to take immediate and concrete measures to rein them in.

“Every day, we receive 40 to 50 calls from frightened people all across the country pleading for protection or reporting abuses,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated in a press release.

His office (OHCHR) has received accounts from 47 Burundian refugees who fled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) about serious violations reportedly committed by the militia attached to the pro-government movement known as the Imbonerakure.

“If State authorities are indeed colluding with a violent lawless militia in this manner, they are gambling with the country’s future in the most reckless manner imaginable,” said the High Commissioner, warning that such violations “could tip an already extremely tense situation over the edge.”

“Now, more than ever, it is essential the Burundian authorities show their commitment to peace by clearly disassociating themselves from their violent supporters and ensuring accountability for any crime or human rights violations they may have committed,” he continued.

Reported to have taken place in Bujumbura, as well as in various provinces, the alleged violations include summary executions, abductions, torture, beatings, death threats and other forms of intimidation.

A 19-year-old refugee from Makamba province told OHCHR that his house was attacked and looted at night by Imbonerakure members and his father stabbed to death because he had refused to join the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD.

Another refugee said he was abducted on 15 April by four members of the militia who accused him of supporting an opposition party, the FNL. He said he was taken to a building and tortured by the four men, who beat him with an iron rod. Wounds were still visible on his body at the time of the interview.

A female refugee from the same town said that she and her husband were also beaten up at night in their house by Imbonerakure elements, who asked why her husband was not taking part in the meetings organised by the CNDD-FDD. Her husband was subsequently abducted and has not been seen or heard from since.

Numerous refugees claimed that threats had been scrawled across the doors and walls of their own or other people’s houses, some being marked with a cross, apparently in order to identify people to be targeted or attacked, or as a means of sowing terror.

“These reports are truly chilling, particularly in a country with a history like Burundi’s,” the human rights chief said. “We have been receiving consistent testimonies indicating that Imbonerakure members operate under instructions from the ruling party and with the support of the national police and intelligence services, which provide them with weapons, vehicles and sometimes uniforms,” he added.

The High Commissioner also called on opposition leaders to rein in any violent elements that may be forming on their side.

“While so far there have been very few acts of violence committed by opposition elements, there are signs of increasingly coercive efforts to push people into actively supporting the opposition,” he noted. “I urge opposition leaders to make a huge effort to ensure their supporters protest peacefully and do not resort to violence.”

“The last thing Burundi needs after a decade of gradual and largely successful peace-building is to be catapulted back into civil war because of a small number of people’s ruthless determination to retain, or gain, power at any cost,” he stated.

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