Critics warn that Burundi still harshly targets opposition

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FILE - Opposition candidate Agathon Rwasa attends the congress of the opposition Congres National pour la Liberte (National Freedom Council) party, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi on Feb. 16, 2020. Rwasa told The Associated Press that at least 20 opposition members were seized in the past year 2021. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza, File)

NAIROBI – The armed men kicked down the door during the night. Within minutes, men wearing police uniforms seized the opposition figure and left. It was the last time Chantal saw her husband.

The disappearance in Burundi’s Gihanga district in November led Chantal to flee to neighboring Congo, she told The Associated Press, giving only her first name out of fear of retaliation.

Her husband is one of at least 20 opposition members in Burundi who have been seized over the past year, Agathon Rwasa, leader of main opposition party CNL, told the AP. Some were tortured in the custody of intelligence officials, he said, citing survivors or representatives and family members able to speak with them in prison.

“They are accused of having weapons in their houses. (The government) also pretends that they have ties with some rebel or armed groups," Rwasa said. "How come they always pretend that CNL members are in collusion with such kind of behavior?”

Such accounts have led human rights groups to warn that Burundi’s government has shown little if any improvement under President Evariste Ndayishimiye, who took office after the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2020 with talk of reforms after years of deadly political crackdowns.

The United States in November terminated its sanctions program on Burundi, citing “changed circumstances and positive political developments” there. The United Nations Human Rights Council suspended the mandate of its commission of inquiry on Burundi, and the European Union delegation in the country agreed to resume political dialogue with local authorities.

But concerns remain. In a case that drew even Ndayishimiye’s attention, well-known CNL opposition figure Augustin Matata was seized in November and held by intelligence services.

He died in December after being tortured, which Burundi’s National Human Rights Commission acknowledged, in an unusual move. The organization has been criticized by human rights groups for not denouncing violations. The commission also alleged it had documented cases of torture in the intelligence cells, but it didn’t give details and would not tell the AP whether the cases involved CNL members.

A senior intelligence officer was imprisoned for Matata’s death and in December Burundi's president surprised many by speaking to reporters about the case.

“People being tortured by the intelligence, it is a crime, you know that,” Ndayishimiye said. “And I am going to reveal to you that the person who did this shouldn’t have been in the service that day.” Some in Burundi “still have a spirit of wild beasts,” he added.

But the government has denied that people are being disappeared. The spokesman for the security ministry, Pierre Nkurikiye, recently told journalists there are no such known cases, and he called on families to report allegations to police instead of airing them on social media. Government spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye told the AP that "if (families) really have cases, the courts are there for that.”

Such attitudes leave observers worried.

“Since President Ndayishimiye came to power, we have continued to document cases of enforced disappearances and torture, often implicating the military, the police or the national intelligence service. Many victims are perceived opposition members or suspected of working with armed groups,” Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told the AP.

He said his group since Ndayishimiye’s election has documented how authorities consistently failed to investigate the dozens of dead bodies that were found, often mutilated and showing signs of execution or torture, along a river separating Burundi and Congo.

Ending such abuses should be a top priority if Ndayishimiye and Burundi’s government are serious about rights reforms and addressing “the pervasive system of abuse that became entrenched under Nkurunziza’s presidency,” Mudge said.

In December, the U.N. Committee Against Torture deplored Burundi’s lack of cooperation in its work, saying the committee had received 14 torture complaints against the government since 2014. Asked whether any of the cases were received since Ndayishimiye took office, the committee told the AP it could not immediately disclose details.

In a recent report, the independent Initiative for Human Rights in Burundi noted the recent cases of arbitrary arrest and torture and urged the international community to pay attention.

“Do not take the government’s fine human rights promises at face value while it continues to torture and eliminate suspected opponents,” the group said.