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Guest post: “the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors to educate the donors’ taxpayers” – Thierry Uwamahoro

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“Free Kavumbagu” cause makes its way to the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, DC – guest post by Thierry Uwamahoro

Yes, you saw right! That was a “Free Kavumbagu” sign among the thousands of other rally signs that either made you laugh or left you scratching your head as you attempted to understand what they meant or who their intended audience was.

This Saturday (10.30.10), hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to Washington, DC to join a rally whose objective was to restore sanity in the discourse of American politics.

However, American politics are never too far from world affairs as the American people pride themselves in calling their President, the “Leader of the Free World”. As a Burundian residing near Washington, DC, I was drawn to think of a fellow Burundian – a journalist – who was not part of the “Free World” as the Rally to Restore Sanity went on.

Jean Claude Kavumbagu is an internationally-renowned journalist and human rights defender who has been unjustly arrested five times in this decade, but has never been found guilty. Today, he remains behind bars, despite promises by Burundian authorities and global calls for his release.

On July 17th, 2010, Jean Claude Kavumbagu was arrested and later jailed over an article that he published on his online journal “Net Press”. The article questioned the preparedness of the Burundian security forces, were the Somalia based militia Al-Shabab to attack Bujumbura (Burundi). The Burundian government considered the publication of such article “treason”, a charge that carries a life imprisonment sentence. Paradoxically, treason is an offense that Burundian law only recognizes when the country is at war due to external aggression. This is not the case today!

Last September, after meetings with some of Burundi’s highest officials, Omar Faruk Osman (President of the Federation of African Journalists) and his delegation left Bujumbura (Burundi) on a highly promising and optimistic note summed up in these words: “We agreed with the leadership of the country the urgency to resolve the case of Kavumbagu and our message was clear that was no longer a mere Burundian affair but an African and international press freedom case”.

Jean Claude Kavumbagu’s freedom has become a national, regional, continental and global issue. The Union of Burundian Journalists and the entire Burundian civil society, the East African Journalists Association, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Federation of African Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, FrontLine, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch; to name just a few – have all called for the release of Jean Claude Kavumbagu.

But all these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mr. Kavumbagu has –this week – passed the 100 day mark behind bars in the notorious “Mpimba” prison, despite his constitutional rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The call for Kavumbagu’s freedom must not fade. This is no time to despair and quit.

But why carry the call to Washington, DC? This week, according to the journal Arc-en-Ciel, Washington hosted a high level delegation comprised of Burundian security apparatus heavyweights: the Director of military cabinet in the office of the President (Major General Evariste Ndayishimiye), the Minister of Internal Security (General Alain Guillaume Bunyoni) and the army chief of staff (Major General Godefroid Niyombare) alongside the top civilian advisor to the President. The delegation’s goal, according to trusted sources, was to promote greater cooperation between Bujumbura and Washington, and to secure funding for capacity building projects for Burundian securities forces.

If Washington and the American taxpayers are to fund these forces (the same forces that are carrying out the arrests of journalists), one can safely assume that Washington will have a greater voice in demanding that these security institutions improve their human rights record; or, at least, that should Washington voice any concern, Bujumbura would listen.

Ideally, a few months after celebrating our 48th independence anniversary, Burundians should not be expecting foreign powers’ coercion to be the safeguard to our freedoms. However, we have to be realistic. When a given government’s budget is financed at the tune of 70% by the international community, the perverse outcome is accountability to its donors (instead of its citizens). It is unfortunate! In the meantime, the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors wherever they reside to educate the donors’ taxpayers. This Saturday, a few Americans learned of Burundi and of another name that they weren’t able to pronounce: Kavumbagu.

by Thierry Uwamahoro

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Written by Richard Wilson

November 1, 2010 at 10:17 pm

African Union sends man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in South Africa to investigate reports of 300,000 deaths in Darfur – assisted by the man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in Burundi

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Hot on the heels of its anguished denunciation of the international indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir over war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the African Union has further cemented its global credibility by appointing ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki to look into the charges.

Mbeki is certainly an interesting choice for a mission whose ostensible aim is to establish the truth about a life-or-death humanitarian issue.

As President of South Africa, Mbeki famously bought into the claims of internet conspiracy theorists who say that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the illness is actually caused by the medications used to treat the disease. A Harvard study recently concluded that the Mbeki government’s steadfast refusal to make AIDS medicines available to those with HIV may have led to over 330,000 preventable deaths.

To add further gravitas, Mbeki will be assisted, according to Voice of America (who give a slightly different account of the purpose of the mission), by the former President of Burundi, Major General Pierre Buyoya.

Buyoya is widely suspected of orchestrating the 1993 assassination of the man who had defeated him at the ballot box earlier that year, the country’s first democratically-elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye.  The killing triggered a brutal, decade-long ethnic war in which more than 300,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died.

For most of this period, Buyoya was in charge, having seized the Presidency in a coup in 1996. During Buyoya’s reign, forces under his command carried out a series of brutal massacres against the Hutu civilian population – but as the International Criminal Court can only investigate crimes committed after 2003 – the year Buyoya’s rule ended, it’s unlikely that he will face justice any time soon. A long promised UN-aided “special court” for Burundi has yet to materialise.

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.”