KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Repression has intensified in Burundi as the country prepares to hold elections, according to a human rights research group.
Abductions and killings target the government’s political opponents in rural areas where the crimes are likely to go unreported, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative charges in a report published Tuesday. The attacks often are carried out with the knowledge of local officials, the report says.
Violence persists even though President Pierre Nkurunziza will not be a candidate in elections set for May. Nkurunziza, who has served three terms, is expected to remain influential behind the scenes.
“The discovery of dead bodies, many of them unidentified, in various provinces in Burundi continues to be a deeply disturbing phenomenon in early 2020,” the report says. “Some of the bodies have been found with their arms tied, with injuries, mutilations, or other indications that they did not die of natural causes.”
Most of the victims of the repression are members of the opposition National Freedom Council, known by its French acronym CNL, whose leader is the president’s leading opponent, the report says.
There are at least four sites across the country where some of those killed have been buried secretly in graves that do not identify their names, according to the report, which cites anonymous sources in the ruling party who oppose the violations.
Allegations of rights abuses brought Burundi to leave the International Criminal Court in 2017, the first country to do so. The government also kicked out the U.N. human rights office. Burundi’s government strongly denies it targets its own people, saying such reports are malicious propaganda spread by opponents.
Gaston Sindimwo, first vice president of Burundi, dismissed the new report as one of many that “come as rumors in order to create fear among Burundians.”
“They have been saying so. There is nothing we can do so they may be satisfied. We are building our house and when it is fully built they will end up coming back to us. Let us mind our business, and let them mind their business,” he told The Associated Press.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party on Sunday chose its presidential candidate, a military general who is a close ally of the president. That decision signaled that Nkurunziza would step down.
But analysts believe a retired Nkurunziza will remain powerful behind the scenes. He is to be given the title of “paramount leader” under draft legislation approved by the government last week. The ruling party in 2018 declared him “the eternal supreme guide.”
For years watchdog groups have raised concerns over alleged impunity enjoyed by the Imbonerakure, a group of youth wingers who are loyal to the ruling party. The group’s members also have been accused of chanting calls to “impregnate” or kill the regime’s opponents during political rallies.
Imbonerakure members have carried out most of the abuses, according to the report by Burundi Human Rights Initiative, which says that many Burundians worry the regime is spreading fear to win the 2020 polls.
“The involvement of senior officials is not always visible,” the report says, referring to violations. “However, the consistency in types of human rights violations across the country and in statements or speeches by political leaders clearly demonstrates the existence of a national strategy for dealing with the CNL.”
Nkurunziza rose to power in 2005 following the signing of the Arusha accords ending a 13-year civil war that killed about 300,000 people. He was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote. He insisted he was eligible for a third term in 2015 because lawmakers, not the general population, had chosen him for his first term — a move that critics called unconstitutional.
Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, exports mostly coffee and depends heavily on foreign aid. Per capita income is under $300, according to U.N. data.
The government has faced more financial pressure in the aftermath of violence following the 2015 polls as some donors cut or reduced aid.
Amid a funding shortage, authorities announced in 2017 that Burundians would pay for the next elections through “voluntary contributions” from households. The cash collections were arbitrary and sometimes brutal, Human Rights Watch reported in December, citing abuses such as the intimidation and beating of those who did not comply.
Eloge Willy Kaneza in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.