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Alexis Sinduhije: “The international community, obsessed with stability… chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected”

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From Alexis Sinduhije in The East African:

John, 35, the youth leader of UPD, the Union for Peace and Development, was arrested by Burundi intelligence in early June and accused of being a security threat to the state.

He was taken to their secret offices where he was tortured, his right ear cut off and his penis and testicles shoved into a gourd.

He was later moved to the central prison but the damage has been done; he is now infertile.

//

Many members of different opposition parities have been arrested, tortured and threatened throughout the country.

The official count according to human-rights organisations is 200 but that is only those we know of; many more incidents are happening in military posts and police stations across the country.

Those that have been arrested, threatened and tortured are the lucky ones – others have been killed in broad daylight, in their homes.

On June28, Ladislas Ntiharirizwa and his wife Christine were at home in Muramvya province relaxing after their evening meal when grenades were thrown into their house and they were both killed, leaving behind a small baby of 3 months and a child of 3 years.

Their crime was to be members of MSD, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

The same night, in the same town, a grenade was thrown into the house of a Frodebu leader killing his 7-year-old son and leaving him gravely injured.

Later, in the far east of the country, in the small town of Gisuru bordering Tanzania, the Imbonerakure (the youth militia of the ruling party CNDD-FDD) with the support of the police, attacked several families, members of the FNL party, in their homes with clubs, pangas and jembes.

The result was the death of four and the hospitalisation of five others, most of whom are still in hospital.

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Many young members of the opposition have fled their homes and jobs across the country. Their future is uncertain.

They thought they were growing up in a period of democracy in Burundi, after the years and years of war that their parents and grandparents suffered through.

However, they have learned that today, in Burundi, being a member of a political party that is not the one that is in power is a crime and your life will be destroyed.

They have learned that freedom of expression and opinion is a right held only by the party in power.

The opposition does not have much room to manoeuvre in.

The one choice open to them that they should not even consider is to cease to function.

The opposition in Burundi cannot afford to disappear or become puppets of the regime.

Although the political space is growing smaller and smaller as Burundi falls under the influence of the Kagame regime next door, political diversity is a must in this country that knows too well the impact of decades of military dictatorship.

The second choice is to flee the country and operate from exile as has happened across Africa under oppressive regimes.

Already this option is being witnessed as three leaders of opposition parties have fled the county fearing for their lives and many members of opposition parties have gone into hiding within the country.

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This is hardly surprising given the large number of arrests and assassinations that have already taken place.

The third option is to return to the violence and permanent civil unrest that the country has known since Independence.

This is not a choice that the opposition, or any citizen would welcome.

However – given the fact that all attempts at dialogue requested by the opposition have been refused and that the international community has sat quiet while electoral fraud, abuse of human rights and violence has taken place this option – sadly may yet become a reality.

The international community, obsessed with stability has turned a blind eye to all these manoeuvrings and abuses of human rights and of freedom of expression; they chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected.

In June the opposition leaders called for support from the East African Community.

They naively thought that the leaders in the neighbouring paper democracies would insist on transparent electoral processes.

They had hoped that the region’s leaders would call upon the party in power to stop arresting, torturing and assassinating the political opposition.

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But they forgot that the East African Community was an old boys’ club and no one was going to rock the boat in this period of multiple elections across the region.

They forgot that leaders across the region have the same attitude to democratic elections; that across the region elections are rigged and the results of the elections known before the populace even goes to the polls. The EAC has chosen to support the perpetrators of abuse and not the victims.

We realise that if democracy is to be saved, it is for us to do it.

Political opposition and civil society need to stay strong and courageous in Burundi. We cannot return to the dictatorships that have oppressed our country for decades. We, the political opposition of Burundi, need to be an example to the region. We need to show how political pluralism can build a country, not destroy it.

What is the value of the East African Community if its members hide their heads in the sand and support oppressive regimes that do not respect basic human rights?

If we are serious about democracy in Africa we need to stop this Mickey Mouse game.

We have power holders who create fake opposition parties merely to show that there is “competition” – while there is no real diversity of opinion.

The naiveté of the foreign ministers in the region was is revealed in statements such as the one Kenya’s Moses Wetangula made in June when he said, “The EAC will insist on the democratisation of all member states to avoid a situation that could lead to disharmony and to ensure that they contribute positively to the wellbeing of the region.”

What form of democracy is he talking about?

Is it a democracy where parties that speak out against the regimes in power are destroyed, their members arrested, killed and tortured?

We need to hold our leaders accountable so that all can have their basic needs met and their rights respected.

As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian political scientist says: “If Africans want democracy, they must be willing to pay the price. No one will pay it for them. Nor will they obtain it on credit.”

Alexis Sinduhije is president of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Amnesty International adopts Alexis Sinduhije as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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Amnesty International has added its voice to those highlighting the worsening human rights situation in Burundi – and in particular the arbitrary arrest of the journalist-turned-opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije. I met Alexis in person back in 2002, and he helped me enormously when I was researching Titanic Express. I’ve been following events closely since he was arrested earlier this month.

From Amnesty International:

UA 318/08 Arbitrary arrest/ prisoner of conscience

BURUNDI Alexis Sinduhije (m)

Alexis Sinduhije, the President of the Movement for Security and Democracy (Mouvement pour la Sécurité et la Démocratie, MSD), a political opposition group, was arrested on 3 November during a MSD party meeting. Thirty-six others were also arrested, but have since been released. Alexis Sinduhije is currently detained in Mpimba Central Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. He is a prisoner of conscience, held solely for expressing his political views.

The ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, (Conseil national de défense et de la démocratie-Forces de défense et de la démocratie – CNDD-FDD), has recently denied opposition parties the right to peaceful assembly by preventing them from holding meetings without government authorization. Human rights monitors initially thought the arrests were made because the meeting had been held without authorization. The MSD had also had problems registering as a political party.

On 11 November, Alexis Sinduhije was brought before the deputy prosecutor at the Prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura. He was subsequently charged for showing “contempt for the Head of State” (“outrage au chef de l’etat”). The charges were based on documents seized during the arrests which were apparently critical of the President’s development policies. His file should go before the advisory chamber (chambre de conseil) within several days when the acting Judge will decide whether or not to grant him provisional release.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The arrest of Alexis Sinduhije has raised considerable concern amongst members of civil society and the international community about the protection of civil and political rights in Burundi. The United States, the European Union and the UK strongly condemned Alexis Sinduhije’s arrest. The CNDD-FDD has shown increasing intolerance towards political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders perceived as being critical towards them.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible, in French, English or your own language:

– expressing grave concern that Alexis Sinduhije has been detained on a charge of“contempt for the Head of State”, simply for being critical of the President’s development policies;

– urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;

– reminding the authorities that Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

APPEALS TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza

Président de la République

Présidence de la République

Boulevard de l’Uprona

Rohero I

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Président/Excellence

Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals

Monsieur Jean-Bosco Ndikumana

Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

BP 1880

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 21 86 10

Salutation: Monsieur le Ministre

First Vice-president

Monsieur Yves Sahinguvu

Premier Vice-président

Présidence de la République

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Premier Vice-président/Excellence

The Prosecutor of the Republic

Monsieur Elyse Ndaye

Procureur Générale de la République
Parquet Général
BP 105

Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax : +257 22 25 88 44

Salutation: Monsieur le Procureur / Dear Procureur

COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of Burundi accredited to your country.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat, or your section office, if sending appeals after 31 December 2008.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:13 pm

US State Department calls for release of Alexis Sinduhije

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From the Washington Post

The State Department protested the Burundian government’s arrest Monday of an aspiring presidential candidate and former journalist who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people this year by Time magazine.

Burundian authorities arrested Alexis Sinduhije at his political party’s headquarters in Bujumbura on Monday, along with other party staff members.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We believe he should be released immediately,” Russell Brooks, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Friday. “It remains our hope the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.”

An ethnic Tutsi reporter who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije has become a national celebrity in Burundi, a small central African country that has been plagued for more than 15 years by violence between the two ethnic groups.

In 2001 Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine, an independent radio station that promoted reconciliation between the groups.

His reporting has drawn international praise. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored Sinduhije in 2004 with its International Press Freedom Award. He has also appeared as a guest on PBS‘s “Charlie Rose” show.

“We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized,” Sinduhije said in explaining his journalistic mission at the 2004 award ceremony. “We hired former fighters, both Hutu and Tutsi . . . to become fighters for peace and truth.”

Joel Simon, the committee’s executive director, said Sinduhije’s radio station “was a beacon” for those searching for an “alternative to the kind of politics of racial division which had brought Burundi to the brink of genocide.”

Simon said Sinduhije has been repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for his work as a reporter. Sinduhije left journalism in December 2007 to compete in Burundi’s 2010 presidential election. The government has refused to formally register his political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

“We don’t think this is a press freedom case,” Simon said, noting that the charges were nevertheless “trumped up.” He said, “We’re obviously very concerned about him, and this treatment illustrates the environment in which Burundi’s election is taking place.”

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Augustin Nsanze, declined to comment on the arrest.

Over the years, Alexis Sinduhije has been immensely supportive of efforts to get to the truth over the Titanic Express massacre, and secure justice for all Burundi’s victims. Click here for more background on his arrest.

Human Rights Watch condemns Burundi ruling party’s attack on Alexis Sinduhije

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Click here for more background on this story.

From Human Rights Watch

(Bujumbura, November 5, 2008) – The detention of political activist Alexis Sinduhije and 36 others by Burundian police on November 3, 2008, highlights the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today. Sinduhije, well-known as a former radio journalist, has been trying since February to form an opposition political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD).

The detentions follow extensive harassment of leaders of several parties opposed to the dominant National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of the Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

“It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch.

Dozens of police armed with Kalashnikovs entered the MSD headquarters shortly after noon on November 3, indicating they had information that an illegal meeting was being held. A search warrant that they contended legitimized their entry was delivered two hours later, carried no docket number, and listed another premises – Sinduhije’s residence – as the place to be searched. It gave the charge against Sinduhije as “threatening state security.” Police officers searched and confiscated several documents, one of which they said contained “subversive material.” They proceeded to arrest everyone on the premises, including political activists, a receptionist, and a driver who was later released.

When a Human Rights Watch researcher present at the time of the search and arrests questioned police officers about irregularities, they responded that they were only “executing orders” given by Regional Police Commissioner David Nikiza, who had delivered the search warrant.

Asked to comment on the irregularities, the police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, responded that the party itself was illegal and that therefore the search and subsequent detentions were justified.

Interior Minister Venant Kamana has refused to register MSD as a political party, claiming that a party cannot include “security” among its goals because security is the exclusive province of the state.

Taken into custody on November 3, Sinduhije and the others were still being held at several city jails as of the evening of November 4, without any charges having been formally entered against them. Police officers interrogated Sinduhije, in the presence of his lawyer, about statements in the confiscated documents criticizing President Peter Nkurunziza’s development policies. They suggested such statements might lead to a charge of “insulting the President.” They also interrogated him about efforts to recruit party members among young people, some of them former combatants in rival forces during 10 years of civil war.

Two other MSD members were arrested last week in Cankuzo province, one for allegedly distributing party cards, the other for having such a card in his possession.

Ntarabaganyi, the police spokesman, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Sinduhije and the others had been arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting. A ministerial ordinance issued in early October 2008 requires political parties to obtain official authorization for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as had previously been the case. Burundian law does not require groups other than political parties to obtain authorization for meetings.

Other parties have also faced harassment. Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD. Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorized meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Peter Nkurunziza after they criticized his education policy during a private conversation.

Most local authorities on the provincial and communal levels are CNDD-FDD members. Even before the new ordinance on meetings was issued, some of them used their authority or that of the police to hinder political meetings or to shut down press conferences by opposition parties including the Democratic Front in Burundi (Frodebu), the Democratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), and the CNDD (a party different from CNDD-FDD).

Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Both of these treaties require Burundi to protect fully the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom of association. To avoid arbitrary detention, persons detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offense must be informed of the charge against them as quickly as possible, allowed access to a lawyer and to visitors, and be brought speedily before a judicial authority with power to order their release.

“Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law,” said Des Forges. “Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights.”

Time Magazine names Alexis Sinduhije as one among the top 100 most influential people in the world

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I’ve just had a text message from a Burundian friend, telling me that Alexis Sinduhije has been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Alexis is nominated among the list’s “Heroes and Pioneers” by Christiane Amanpower, CNN’s chief international correspondent, and is placed at number 36, just ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi.

It’s great that such a major news outlet is giving this recognition. I know of no other journalist in the world with such a track record of fearlessness in the face of brutality. Whether by speaking out against the abuses of Palipehutu-FNL, highlighting the involvement of the elitist Tutsi government of Pierre Buyoya in the murder of the WHO official Kassi Manlan, or blowing the lid on CNDD-FDD’s attempt in 2006 to jail the entire political opposition on the basis of a bogus conspiracy theory, Alexis has been tireless in speaking up for the truth, and opposing injustice.

Equally, outside of the African media, and the reports produced by Amnesty, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres, his work – and the life-and-death issues involved, have been a fairly well kept secret.

Alexis Sinduhije’s account of the aftermath of the 1993 assassination of President Ndadaye is still one of the most moving that I’ve ever read. I quoted from it in the final chapter of Titanic Express, and I thought I might include an extract from it here. The full version can be read by following this link.

For me as a journalist, the cycle began all in one moment on the night of October 21, 1993 at two o’clock in the morning. The army, dominated by a Tutsi majority, attacked the palace of President Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye was Burundi’s first Hutu president and had been democratically elected, in sharp contrast with his Tutsi predecessors, who had seized power through military coups. At around two o’clock that morning, mortar shelling and automatic weapons fire woke the entire city of Bujumbura. I got out of bed and began making phone calls.

Nobody knew what was happening. I was working as a reporter for the state radio station, Radio Burundi, and had just begun to work as well as news editor for an independent weekly called La Semaine. I made a few more calls, but still got no reply.

I said to my wife, Diana, that I thought it was either a military coup or an attack by members of Palipehutu, the radical Hutu party that had been banned from the recent elections. When I turned on the radio, there was no sound. I knew then that it was a military coup. With great difficulty, I convinced my wife that I had to go cover the story… As I left my house, I saw that our Hutu neighbors were also awake, and tense with anger. Many looked at me full of hate. I understood that the situation was going to degenerate into violence, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be…

One of my childhood friends, a Hutu named Gashira, saw me and asked, “You Tutsis, why are you so arrogant? We elected our president and your soldiers killed him.” The question troubled me. It is true that I had brothers in the army, but I wasn’t responsible for their actions. I was surprised and afraid at how ready he was to include me among those who were responsible.

Over the next few days, everywhere emotion took hold of reason. In the eyes of the Hutus, the Tutsis were guilty. I hadn’t really answered Gashira’s question. Although we were of different ethnicity, we both lived in the same neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital, so I couldn’t see why he spoke of arrogance… I headed toward the palace. It wasn’t easy because the army had blocked all traffic and the Presidential Palace was more than 6 kilometers from Kamenge. I decided to walk.

After more than an hour, I reached a hotel called the Source of the Nile where foreigners stayed and which was adjacent to the Presidential Palace. Troops were everywhere. Thanks to a soldier I knew, I got access into the palace courtyard, where I found a group of soldiers pillaging the house. They had already emptied the presidential refrigerator, and were drinking and celebrating. They asked me if I wanted some champagne. I replied that I never drank before sundown and it wasn’t yet midday. One of them told me that I was missing a unique opportunity to taste champagne. We all burst into laughter. Champagne is the drink of the rich in Burundi, and then only the extremely rich… They had raided the president’s residence to drink it.

The palace roof was riddled with holes, windows were shattered, and the southern walls surrounding the palace were destroyed. “That was from a shell fired from a tank,” the soldiers explained to me, laughing. I asked if there were any dead among the president’s bodyguards, and they burst out laughing again. They replied that the bodyguard was comprised of soldiers, and that they wouldn’t fire upon their colleagues… They confirmed that… the president had died at 10 A.M. in a military camp in Musaga, 6 kilometers south of Bujumbura.

I knew that the president’s death would have grave consequences. I remembered what Gashira had said to me, but now I pretended to support the soldiers’ act. In reality, deep down inside, I hated them because I thought of the thousands of Tutsis who would end up paying for it. I was convinced that the Hutu officials in the countryside would pit the Hutu peasants against the Tutsis. Then soon after, I learned from military sources that the situation was, in fact, turning catastrophic.

Alexis went on to found Studio Ijambo, before moving onto the project for which he is most famous, Radio Publique Africaine.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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Burundi’s Christian evangelical President, Pierre Nkurunziza, may be having difficulty living up to the New Testament exhortation to forgive those he sees as his enemies, but he’s following the Old Testament strictures on homosexuality rather more rigidly. The Burundian Parliament has just rushed through legislation which will, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalise gay relationships, and President Nkurunziza is expected to endorse it shortly.

Burundi now appears to be following what we might call the “Ugandan model” of church-led jurisprudence, where those responsible for torture, mass-killings, and rape (so long as the victims are women, obviously) get pardoned by the state, leaving it free to expend its resources persecuting and publicly vilifying men who sleep with other men.

At moments like this it’s traditional for western media types to shrug their shoulders and say things like “Well, it’s their culture, isn’t it? Surely we have to respect their ways”.

So I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts from the veteran Burundian commentator and former statesman Gratien Rukindiza, who describes the new law as “retrograde, reactionary and fundamentalist”, and suggests that Burundi’s leaders “believe they are closest to God when they hurt the Burundian people”.

“The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay“, Rukindikiza points out. “He runs a city more populous than the whole of Burundi. The city is wealthier than Burundi. He is a respectable, honest man who will probably one day be President. Does the mayor of Bujumbura dare visit the mayor of Paris knowing that in Burundi, the law would send his host to jail?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am

Burundi politican jailed for calling the President an “empty bottle” (and inciting armed rebellion)

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Here is an odd story. Back in 2006, when I wrote this article for Comment is Free, Burundi seemed to be sliding towards dictatorship, and the prevailing view was that Hussein Radjabu, then Secretary General of Burundi's ruling party CNDD-FDD, was at least partly to blame. 

Radjabu had made a number of open threats against the independent media – describing journalists who criticised the government as “talking skulls” on one occasion – and was widely believed to have been behind the arrest and torture of several prominent opposition leaders on the bogus pretext (no evidence was ever produced – the giveaway sign of a conspiracy theory) that they were jointly plotting a coup. He was also suspected of orchestrating a number of unexplained killings, together with a botched attempt on the life of the award-winning journalist Alexis Sinduhije, and of using kickbacks from a number of corrupt business deals to fund his own private militia.

But in early 2007, ruling party members voted to oust Radjabu from his position, and he was then arrested. The instability continued, however, and when I met some CNDD-FDD members who visited London last summer, it was clear that Radjabu's influence was still casting a long shadow. One of those I spoke to, Senator Mohammed Rukara, told me that unknown assailants had fired shots at him earlier in the year, and many believed that Radjabu's associates were behind the attack.

The BBC's latest report suggests that Radjabu's fall may alienate Burundi's Muslims. As ever, it's very hard to know how you could evaluate such a claim or find evidence for it. I'm generally sceptical of the presumption that a community as a whole will inevitably feel victimised simply because someone who happens to belong to that community has been found guilty of a crime and prosecuted. While Radjabu and his allies may try to paint this case as an attack on the entire Muslim community, this doesn’t automatically mean that every Burundian Muslim will share this view.

What the reports on this case don’t seem to mention, regrettably, is that some of the fiercest and most high-profile opponents of Radjabu have also been Muslim – not least Senator Rukara, who is a leading member of Burundi's Islamic community. 

But the story does seem to highlight the irony of Burundi's topsy-turvy judicial system. The charge for which Radjabu was jailed was "plotting an armed rebellion", and – most heinously of all – calling the President an "empty bottle". The fact that he is also suspected of orchestrating torture, assassination, and mass-killings seems to have played no part in his prosecution and conviction. And there is no sign yet of any justice for the victims of Buta, Teza, Muyinga, Gatumba, Itaba or the Titanic Express.

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 5, 2008 at 4:00 pm