Recently the Burundi police arrested a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, Faustin Ndikumana, who reportedly claimed that judges were required to pay bribes prior to their appointment. From media reports, it appears Ndikumana may have been arrested for the offence of defamation, although he has not been charged yet.
Last month, Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije was arrested and detained in Tanzania at the request of the Burundian government. He was unlawfully detained in Tanzania and subsequently released when no charges were laid against him. These arrests seem to be part of a pattern common in Burundi over the past few years — a pattern of harassment of political opposition members, lawyers and media organisations using all arms of the criminal justice system: The courts, prosecutors and the police.
Various human-rights organisations and representatives of the United Nations itself, have raised concern about the harassment of the media and lawyers in Burundi and the subsequent restriction of freedom of expression. Journalists and lawyers are often intimidated or arrested and detained in what is thought to be a response to stories or actions that are perceived to be critical of the government.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in August 2011 that the National Communications Council, the media regulator controlled by the government, has used threats of closure, imprisonment and court summons in an attempt to silence both Radio Publique Africaine and Radio Insanganiro.
The involvement of the police, who by national and international law exist to protect citizens, in this repression is of particular concern.
Apart from allegations of being involved in the crackdown against media outlets, the police have been reported to be involved in the disturbingly high number of extrajudicial killings carried out in Burundi last year. In December last year, Karin Landgren, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office in Burundi, reported that 57 extrajudicial killings had been documented between January and October 2011. A local NGO in Bujumbura, the Government Action Observatory, estimates that the number is much higher — that over 300 people were illegally killed by the ruling party youth wing, police or secret service members in 2011.
The UN independent expert on human rights in Burundi, Fatsah Ouguergouz, has called on the government of Burundi to independently investigate all allegations of extrajudicial killings and human-rights abuses by police. However, although there have been repeated calls for Burundi to independently investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings, little visible action been taken. A commission of inquiry set up by the government in October 2010 is yet to produce any findings.
Arguably, a commission of inquiry by itself is not sufficient — in addition, a well-resourced independent body must be available to independently investigate allegations against the police, security forces and government bodies on an on-going basis.
Strong oversight of all government agencies, including the police, is required to ensure that violations of fundamental human rights do not continue to occur. Furthermore, such independent oversight is in the best interests of the police, as well as the government, as the oversight will improve the reputation and processes of the bodies, and assist in improving relations with the public.
Although Burundi has recently established the National Independent Human Rights Commission, it is under-resourced and, as at October 2011, did not comply with the basic standards for National Human Rights Institutions set out in the United Nations “Paris Principles.” For the Commission to be effective, it needs to be resourced properly and meet the basic standards (Paris Principles) at a minimum.
In relation to the police specifically, the government should also consider establishing an independent police oversight authority to specifically investigate serious allegations against the police. In this regard, Burundi can look to their East African Community partner state Kenya, which has recently passed legislation establishing an Independent Policing Oversight Authority. This Authority will investigate serious complaints made against the police including all deaths or serious injuries that occur in police custody or as a result of police action. The Authority will make recommendations for prosecution or other disciplinary action as a means of holding the police accountable to the public.
Independent investigation into allegations of police or government misconduct in Burundi is critical in the process of replacing the current culture with one of accountability and transparency. The government of Burundi should give strong powers and sufficient resources to the National Independent Human Rights Commission to investigate such allegations and provide appropriate redress.
The government should also consider establishing an independent authority to investigate serious police misconduct. Investing in oversight will improve Burundi’s anti-corruption and human rights record, key to integration within the East African Community and encouraging investment and stability.
Sarah Mount and Rachel Banfield work for the Access to Justice-Police Reform Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative