By Journalists for Justice
In just the latest illustration of Burundi’s systematic disregard for human rights norms, Aloys Habimana a prominent Rwandan rights advocate was detained on February 17th on the nation’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Reports say Habimana was detained together with another person at about noon on Saturday by agents from Burundi’s notorious Service National de Renseignements (SNR – National Intelligence Services) as they prepared to leave Gatumba, a village on the western side of Burundi, to enter the DRC.
According to Front Line Defenders, the Irish-based human rights organisation that Habimana currently works for as its Protection Coordinator for east and southern Africa, the human rights defender is presently being held against his will in one of the SNR’s detention facilities in Bujumbura. Front Line Defenders has called on authorities in Burundi to “immediately and unconditionally release Aloys Habimana and his travel companion.”
The Front Line Defenders also want authorities to ensure that the pair doesn’t suffer any ill-treatment while in their custody. They’ve urged SNR to “Ensure that the treatment of Aloys Habimana and his travel companion while in detention adheres to the conditions set out in the ‘Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment’, adopted by UN General Assembly resolution 43/173 of 9 December 1988.”
The Burundian government under President Pierre Nkurunziza has displayed a troubling penchant for violence. Nkurunziza, after illegally extending his rule with a controversial third term, has seemingly abandoned all pretences of respecting human rights. Reports by various rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have exposed the alarming levels of impunity in Burundi that include torture, state-sanctioned executions of political opponents, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and persecution.
Nkurunziza’s réponse to the catalogue of ills happening under his watch being exposed wasn’t to address or deny the accusations but to seek to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC) in an abortive attempt to avoid accountability. The ICC responded by placing Burundi under preliminary investigation before its application to leave The Hague Court matured.
Burundian rights defenders had hoped that the ICC’s interest in the country would give authorities a strong incentive to halt the sort of illegal actions that have led to Habimana’s detention but there are strong reasons to believe that authorities have only ratcheted up repression. As JFJustice’s Kwamcetsi Makoha reported late last year, the ICC itself is fearful that authorities in Burundi are committing more crimes to hide the evidence of atrocities committed while silencing critics of Nkurunziza’s controversial third term.
“Prosecutors have been racing against time to conclude investigations into alleged crimes against humanity in Burundi fearing that authorities could erase evidence of these crimes by eliminating witnesses through kidnapping and extrajudicial executions after the country’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute became effective in late October.”
Cognizant of the harsh climate rights defenders and dissidents face in Burundi, Front Line Defenders wants authorities to “cease targeting all human rights defenders in Burundi and guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.”
SNR is notoriously opaque and lawless. It has been accused of being behind countless other disappearance including those of respected Burundian journalists Jean Bigirimana and Nestor Nibitanga. It’s therefore important that Habimana’s name is kept in the news so as to pile pressure on Nkurunziza’s government. He and others detained in Burundi must not be denied their liberty for much longer.
On its website, Front Line Defenders keeps an updated list of the human rights defenders currently facing persecution for one reason or another. A troubling footnote in this unfortunate episode is Habimana’s name is now listed on the same website as “Detained.” All human rights defenders must work to ensure that Habimana gets back his freedom.
Those who think Burundi is beyond mending should take courage from Habimana’s writing about his native Rwanda not long ago:
“Sometimes I get discouraged, I feel desperate, and think that maybe it will take a very long time for this country to recover. But when you do work like what we are doing here, if you lose hope, you cannot really work. There is one proverb that says: “The night might be long, but whether you want it or not, the day will announce itself.” So we have to work for this night to be as short as possible. That’s all we can do.”
Habimana has spent a lifetime fighting for others. It is now time everyone to fight for him.
Update: Front Line Defenders has confirmed Aloys Habimana’s release and thanked the campiagners who contributed to making it possible.
Front Line Defenders welcomes the release of our colleague & friend Aloys Habimana after two days in detention in #Burundi. Sincere appreciation for everyone’s solidarity.
For more information, please contact @neo_chlo / email@example.com pic.twitter.com/G7mika6SxW
— Front Line Defenders (@FrontLineHRD) February 19, 2018