Friday, May 14, 2010

Burundi: Elections - "When people are throwing stones, it's easy to incite people to throw grenades"

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW) - "We will tie you up and shoot you." —CNDD-FDD youth group (Imbonerakure) chant, Kabanga colline, Kirundo province, January 24, 2010. [1]

"When people are throwing stones, it's easy to incite people to throw grenades." —local official, Kinama, Bujumbura, January 29, 2010. [2]

"We are afraid of the elections." —FNL member from Kinama, Bujumbura, January 25, 2010. [3]

On May 21, Burundi begins a four-month election season , the country's first elections following the end of a nearly 16-year civil war in 2009. Five distinct elections—municipal (communal), presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and local (collinaire) —are slated to take place by September 7, with the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, CNDD-FDD) seeking to maintain its hold on power.

Burundi's recent history has been marred by political violence. This threatens to continue, and even intensify, if the government, political, security and judicial officials—all of whom have failed to respond effectively to violent incidents during the past year—do not take urgent action to discourage such crimes and prosecute those who appear to have committed them.

Since September 2009, Human Rights Watch has identified acts of violence initiated by supporters of several political parties, most often by members of their youth wings, which include large numbers of ex-combatants from the country's civil war. They are often persuaded—sometimes with party money—to intimidate political rivals with verbal threats, vandalism, and physical assaults. Weapons include sticks, rocks, hoes, machetes and grenades. Inflammatory rhetoric and the circulation of weapons throughout the country fuel these abuses, which frequently result in injuries serious enough to require medical treatment.

The violence has been especially severe in Kirundo, a province in northern Burundi, and in Kinama commune in the capital, Bujumbura, as detailed in two case studies in section II below. Kanyosha commune, also in Bujumbura, has also been recently impacted by partisan violence.

Human Rights Watch and local election monitors have found that CNDD-FDD members—including state officials—are responsible for the majority of the abuses, which include personal attacks, arbitrary arrests, and what appears to be a politically motivated murder. FNL members have also committed acts of violence; both parties often claim their members have been "provoked." International and local observers of political events predict that no single opposition party will outperform CNDD-FDD. But the party has appeared increasingly nervous about losing its absolute majority, in administrative control of Burundi's 129 communes and in parliament, due to strong performances by at least four or five opposition groups, or the possibility of a last-minute coalition between several of them.

As a result of the turmoil, a number of Burundians express fear that the impending elections may lead to more violence, particularly if one or more parties do not accept the results. Their concern is exacerbated by patterns of both bias and inaction on the part of Burundian authorities. Several officials, including President Pierre Nkurunziza and government ministers, have made public statements discouraging violence and promising to hold perpetrators accountable. However, in practice, government, administrative and security officials have downplayed the violence, which they have either failed to investigate, or else investigated in a cursory manner.

The CNDD-FDD, in particular, benefits from clear favoritism on the part of some officials and members of the security forces. For example, no one has been prosecuted for an attack in January, led by a ruling party member, in which an estimated 200 youth assaulted opposition members in Kirundo; nor have party militants been prosecuted for an attack on a journalist's vehicle in Kinama in which a grenade was thrown. Four months after the murder of a CNDD-FDD-turned-opposition party member in January 2010, no arrests had been made.

Failure to prevent or quell violence in Burundi heightens the chance of it continuing. Violent political actors, who believe they will not be caught or punished for their crimes, may be emboldened; victimized members of political groups may seek revenge if they perceive police to be biased and the justice system to be flawed; and campaigning and voting are less likely to be fair and open.

The findings in this report provide insight into the nature of political violence in Burundi, the official handling of such incidents, and the experience of victims caught up in the fighting. They indicate deficiencies in the approach of the government, police, and judiciary in preventing violent confrontations, in treating all political sides equally, and in punishing those responsible for instigating and perpetrating political conflict.

Human Rights Watch believes that state officials and political party leaders should firmly denounce election violence, and back their words by investigating and prosecuting political crimes. The police should conduct thorough and impartial investigations of such incidents, and authorities should hold the perpetrators accountable.

International election observers should not only document cases of political violence, but also monitor victims' access to justice. International donors—the primary financial support for Burundi's police and justice system—should demand that police and prosecutors demonstrate neutrality and rigor in investigating election-related violence. Those who commit political crimes should be prosecuted.

[1] Human Rights Watch interview with communal FNL representative Leonidas Mbonibogoye, Busoni, Kirundo province, February 11, 2010; amateur video filmed by an FNL member, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with a local official, Kinama, Bujumbura, January 29, 2010. Bujumbura Mairie, the capital city, is referred to as "Bujumbura" throughout this report. It should be distinguished from Bujumbura Rural, a separate province, always referred to by its full name.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with an FNL member, Bujumbura, January 25, 2010.

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