The United Nations human rights chief today warned that deeply worrying new trends are emerging in crisis-torn Burundi, including cases of sexual violence by security forces and a sharp increase in enforced disappearances and torture cases.
He also called for an urgent investigation into the events that took place in Bujumbura on 11 and 12 December, including the reported existence of at least nine mass graves.
“The 11 December attacks against three military camps and the large-scale human rights violations that occurred in their immediate aftermath appear to have triggered new and extremely disturbing patterns of violations,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a news release.
“We have documented 13 cases of sexual violence against women, which began during the search and arrest operations that took place after the December events in the neighbourhoods perceived as supportive of the opposition,” he reported. “The pattern was similar in all cases: security forces allegedly entered the victims’ houses, separated the women from their families, and raped – in some cases gang-raped – them.”
He added that new cases of sexual violence have continued to emerge since mid-December, including the reported rape of five women in a single house during a search operation in Bujumbura Mairie province.
“We’ve also received numerous allegations that during the initial search operations on 11 and 12 December in the Musaga, Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Citiboke and Mutakura neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, police and army forces arrested considerable numbers of young men, many of whom were later tortured, killed or taken to unknown destinations. Members of the Imbonerakure militia reportedly took part in these operations,” he said.
Despite these allegations of large-scale arrests, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is reportedly finding that only a small proportion of them appear to be in official places of detention.
“The increasing number of enforced disappearances, coupled with allegations of secret detention facilities and mass graves is extremely alarming,” Mr. Zeid warned.
The High Commissioner said that, according to numerous witnesses, many dead bodies were taken to unknown locations from the neighbourhoods where the search operations took place.
He added that witnesses had reported the existence of at least nine mass graves in Bujumbura and its surroundings – including one in a military camp –containing more than 100 bodies in total, all of them allegedly killed on 11 December.
According to OHCHR, it was reported in some cases that members of the Imbonerakure forced people to dig the graves, either under threat of being killed themselves or with the promise that they would be paid. It was also reported that some of these grave-diggers were indeed subsequently executed.
“My Office is analysing satellite images in an effort to shed more light on these extremely serious allegations,” Mr. Zeid said. “All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red,” he added.
According to information gathered from inhabitants of various neighbourhoods, some of the victims of human rights violations during the search operations that followed the 11 December events were targeted because they were Tutsis. The suggestion that an ethnic dimension is now starting to emerge, is reinforced by one of the sexually abused women who said that her abuser told her she was paying the price for being a Tutsi.
In Bujumbura’s Nyakabiga neighbourhood, another witness claimed that Tutsis were systematically killed, while Hutus were spared. And, in the Muramvya neighbourhood, the decision to arrest people was also reportedly largely made on an ethnic basis, with most Hutus being released, according to several different witnesses.
The High Commissioner welcomed the Ministry of Justice’s recent request to the General Prosecutor of Bujumbura Mairie to investigate the allegations of mass graves.
“However, it is now abundantly clear that we also urgently need an independent, thorough, credible and impartial investigation, and that the alleged grave sites need to be safeguarded,” Mr. Zeid said.
The High Commissioner also stressed the importance of ensuring that family members of people who have been arrested, forcibly disappeared or extrajudicially executed are informed of the whereabouts of their loved ones.
He noted that the reported increasing use of torture and ill-treatment was also of serious concern. “The number of torture cases almost tripled in the space of a month,” Mr. Zeid said, citing 29 cases of torture and 42 cases of ill-treatment documented in December.
According to victims and witnesses, members of the Service national de renseignements (SNR) and the national police are responsible for most cases, with victims allegedly often forced to confess that they belong to, or intend to join, an armed group.
The High Commissioner also noted that the total number of people killed rose to at least 130 in December, double the number of killings during the previous month. As of 14 January, at least 439 people had been killed since 26 April.
“There is rampant impunity for all the human rights violations being committed by security forces and the Imbonerakure, despite ample evidence that they are responsible for more and more serious crimes,” Mr. Zeid said. “This is an indication that a complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner and, with armed opposition groups also becoming more active, and the potentially lethal ethnic dimension starting to rear its head, this will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues.”