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Burundi: Free Expression Under Threat

Burundi: Free Expression Under Threat

Prominent Peace Advocate Imprisoned

(New York) - The former parliamentarian and activist Térence Nahimana should be released at once, Human Rights Watch said today, adding that his imprisonment raises questions about freedom of expression in Burundi.

Nahimana was jailed after he questioned why the Burundian government had not opened peace negotiations with the National Liberation Forces (FNL), a rebel movement that expressed its readiness to talk more than two months ago.

“Guarantees of free speech are essential so that people can speak their minds on issues of public importance, like war and peace,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting someone for questioning government actions sends a message that dissenters shouldn’t dare to speak out.”

In a May 5 letter to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, and at a subsequent news conference, Nahimana mooted several explanations for the government’s delay in starting peace talks with the FNL, including that Burundi intended to join Rwanda and Uganda in invading neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The FNL is said to have bases in Congo, and continued conflict with the FNL could serve as a pretext for the Burundian army to cross the border into Congo.

On May 15, after being detained for five days, Nahimana was formally charged with “threatening state security.” The charges are said to be based on legislative provisions that make it a crime to expose Burundi to foreign hostility and that prohibit incitement of the population against the government or incitement to civil war.

There is no evidence that the issues Nahimana raised as public debate have evoked any hostility from a neighboring country or have given rise to any form of public disorder.

“Preserving state security is clearly an important government responsibility,” said Des Forges, “But the facts in this case suggest that Nahimana’s arrest is directed at silencing opposition, not responding to genuine security worries.”

Concerns about the exercise of freedom of expression and the media’s ability to operate freely were raised in an earlier, unrelated, incident on April 17, when journalists reporting on a news conference by a former parliamentarian, Mathias Basabose, were confined at his house for some hours. Several were beaten by police.

Burundi has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1990 and is bound under the covenant to guarantee protection for freedom of expression. It is also bound to do so under the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Nahimana also suggested that Burundian officials were stalling the peace talks in an effort to delay the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, which is to examine alleged violations of international law committed during the conflict. Nahimana said that several government officials expected to be accused of violations before the commission.

Following his statements, Nahimana was summoned twice, on May 9 and 10, for questioning by the National Intelligence Service, known as the Documentation National. Intelligence agents interrogated him about the contents of the letter and his statements in the related news conference.

Initially held incommunicado for 48 hours, Nahimana was later allowed visitors, including access to his lawyer. On May 15 he was formally charged and transferred to the central prison in Bujumbura.

“Unless authorities have evidence to support these charges against Nahimana, they should be dropped,” said Des Forges. “At the very least he should be given immediate pre-trial release so that he can prepare his defense.”

Nahimana is the president of Cercle d’initiative pour une vision commune (CIVIC), a non-governmental organization that works for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and establishment of the rule of law in Burundi. A former member of the FNL, he left the rebel movement in 1990. Since founding CIVIC in 2003, Nahimana has met with FNL leaders to encourage peace negotiations, mostly recently in March 2006 in Dar es Salaam. He informed several members of the government before meeting with the FNL. He claims no political party affiliation.

The new Burundian government was elected in August 2005, following a decade of civil war and a long process of political transition. The new leadership previously belonged to the country's largest rebel group, the CNDD-FDD. The FNL, led by Agathon Rwasa, continues to fight the Burundian military while calling for peace negotiations to begin.

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