Burundi: Release prominent lawyers jailed on spurious charges

Amnesty International

Press Release

28 July 2011

The Burundian government should immediately release two prominent lawyers jailed amid an ongoing dispute with the government, Amnesty International said today, as a national lawyers’ strike continues.

Head of the Bar Association Isidore Rufikiri was arrested on 27 July after speaking at a rally in the capital,Bujumbura. Burundian lawyers are on strike this week to call for the release of their colleague, Suzanne Bukuru, who was arrested on 15 July on charges of “complicity in espionage” after speaking to French journalists about a case of alleged rape.

“Arresting these lawyers violates the right to freedom of expression,” said Erwin van der Borght, Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director.

“The Burundian authorities must immediately release these lawyers and allow them and others to practice freely. “The way they handle this will be a litmus test for the credibility ofBurundi’s justice system.”

The prosecution summoned Rufikiri to the Court of Appeal on 27 July, and interviewed him on charges of “insulting magistrates”, apparently referring to comments he made about judicial interference at a lawyers’ protest on 25 July.

Following this questioning, Rufikiri was taken directly to Mpimba Central Prison.

Bukuru was also summoned by the prosecution on 15 July, in relation to a case where she is representing five girls who allege they were raped by a French national living inBurundi. The accused was found guilty on 25 July and sentenced to 25 years in jail and a €14,000 fine. He is appealing the sentence.

Bukuru was questioned about having put her clients in touch with French journalists visitingBurundibefore the verdict. She was charged with an unrelated and spurious offence of “complicity in espionage”, which carries a life sentence and can only be applied to foreigners and in times of war.

Bukuru was immediately transferred to Mpimba Central Prison and the court will rule on 1 August on whether to grant bail.

The prosecution also questioned Edras Ndikumana, a correspondent for Radio France International (RFI), about his role in putting French journalists in contact with Bukuru.

Background

The independence of the judiciary in Burundi is regularly compromised through political interference. Magistrates are sometimes penalized by being relocated to different provinces for taking decisions seen as unfavourable to the executive.

The United Nations Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Burundi, Fatsah Ouguergouz, cited problems with judicial independence as one of the key weaknesses of Burundi’s justice system in his May 2011 report.

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers not only state that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” but also expressly recognizes that they are entitled to freedom of expression including “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights”.

New Amnesty report criticises vague Rwanda laws

Posted: 31 August 2010

Amnesty International has today [31 August] urged Rwanda’s new government to review its vague laws of ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ which can lead to imprisonment for up to 25 years.

In its new report entitled Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’ Amnesty raised concerns that the laws are being used to suppress political dissent and stifle freedom of speech.

It details how the vague wording of these laws is misused to criminalise criticism of the government and dissent by opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists.

Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director, Erwin van der Borght said:

“The ambiguity of the ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ law means Rwandans live in fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing. Most take the safe option of staying silent.”

Amnesty International found that many Rwandans, even those with specialist knowledge of Rwandan law, were unable to precisely define ‘genocide ideology’. Even judges noted that the law was broad and abstract.

Accusations of ‘genocide ideology’ have also been used to settle personal disputes. Current laws allow for the criminal punishment of children as young as 12, accused of genocide ideology. Parents, guardians and teachers can all face the threat of “inoculating” a child with “genocide ideology”.

Sentences for convicted adults range from 10 to 25 years’ imprisonment.

The ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ laws were introduced to restrict speech that could promote hatred in the decade following the 1994 genocide.   While prohibiting hate speech is a legitimate aim, the approach used by the Rwandan Government has violated international law.

The Rwandan government announced a review of the ‘genocide ideology’ law in April 2010. The government should also launch a review of the ‘sectarianism’ law and demonstrate a new approach to freedom of expression in order to stem the chilling effect of past legislation.

Amnesty International is urging the Rwandan government to significantly amend the laws, to publicly express a commitment to freedom of expression, to review past convictions and to train police and prosecutors on how to investigate accusations.

Erwin van der Borght added:

“We hope that the government review will result in a meaningful revision of the ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ laws, so that freedom of expression is protected both on paper and in practice.”

Notes to Editors

· Rwanda’s ‘genocide ideology’ law was promulgated in 2008 and the ‘sectarianism’ law was promulgated in 2001.

· According to government figures, there were 1,034 trials related to ‘genocide ideology’ in 2007-2008. These were prosecuted under charges ranging from assassinations to damage to cattle.

· According to government figures, 435 ‘genocide ideology’ cases were tried at first instance in 2009.

· In the lead-up to the 9 August presidential elections two opposition candidates were arrested and charged, among other things, with ‘genocide ideology’. A newspaper editor was also arrested on the same charge.

· The BBC and VOA have both been accused of disseminating ‘genocide ideology’ by the government. These accusations led to the suspension of the BBC Kinyarwanda service for two months from April 2009.

Uganda forcibly returns 1,700 Rwandan asylum-seekers

(16 July 2010) Amnesty International has condemned the forced return of around 1,700 Rwandan asylum-seekers from two refugee settlements in Uganda in a joint operation between the governments of Uganda and Rwanda this week.

On Wednesday, armed police officers rounded up the asylum-seekers and forced them on to waiting trucks during two major operations at the Nakivale and Kyaka II refugee settlements in southwestern Uganda.

When some asylum-seekers tried to escape, police officers fired shots into the air. In the ensuing panic and stampede people were reportedly injured and children were separated from their parents.

The asylum-seekers were then driven into Rwanda and taken to Rukomo transit center in Byumba province.

“Any forced removal of rejected asylum-seekers must be carried out in accordance with Uganda’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law, including access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure,” said Erwin van der Borght, Director of Amnesty International’s Africa Programme.

“The conduct of the authorities and the disturbing manner in which these individuals were rounded up raises serious concern that people with genuine protection claims were returned.”

Reports indicate that a number of recognized refugees may have been placed on the trucks and returned to Rwanda. The Office of the Prime Minister, however, has stated that the forced returns targeted rejected asylum-seekers who had exhausted the asylum procedure.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 25 people who were not among the deported were injured, some from police beatings. Among the injured were six pregnant women who were treated at a local hospital and then released. UNHCR also stated that the operations resulted in the deaths of two men who jumped off trucks en route to Rwanda.

Amnesty International questions whether the correct refugee status determination (RSD) procedure was applied in these cases by the Ugandan authorities.  The two groups of Rwandans – both recent arrivals to Uganda – were subjected to an ad hoc procedure whereby authorities sent mobile RSD units to conduct decisions in the camps, without appropriate procedural safeguards.

Despite provisions under national legislation, the UNHCR was not provided with access to the refugee status determination procedures of these two groups.

“The flawed decision making process for these cases raises concerns that those returned have not been granted effective access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure,” said Erwin van der Borght.

According to the UNHCR, since the beginning of 2010, 3,320 Rwandans have filed for asylum in Uganda. Ninety-eight per cent were rejected in the past six months.

UNHCR’s Executive Committee (ExCom), a body of 79 member states who advise on international protection issues and which includes Uganda, has stated clearly that the “return of persons found not to be in need of international protection should be undertaken in a humane manner, in full respect for human rights and dignity and, that force, should it be necessary, be proportional and undertaken in a manner consistent with human rights law…”