Burundi: A Question of Justice?

July 15, 2010

An Amnesty International research team is currently in Burundi, where elections will be taking place in just two weeks. The team will be looking at the human rights situation during the elections. Tom Gibson, Amnesty’s campaigner on Burundi, is reporting. You can follow his blog here.

Today in Bujumbura, we attended the first session of the hearing into the death of Ernest Manirumva, a human rights defender killed on 9 April 2009. Manirumva was vice president of the Burundian civil society organization Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME), an organization that works on corruption.

We arrived at the courtroom just after nine. The proceedings started around half past ten. The trial has generated a lot of interest. The courtroom was packed with people. There seemed to be people of all ages and professions, human rights defenders, journalists, families of those concerned, mothers with children…. It seemed hotter in the courtroom than outside.

The judicial system in Burundi is massively under-resourced. The government just does not have the resources. The courtroom was in poor condition. The walls had seemingly not been painted for years. There were cobwebs hanging from the roof.

It was vital for Amnesty International to attend. This case is so important to civil society in Burundi. To see justice done – and done well – could spell an end to impunity for attacks on civil society.

There was good attendance from the international community including the United States and Belgian embassies. This was an excellent sign. If there is international scrutiny of the trial, the judicial authorities will be under pressure to ensure a fair outcome.

Today was the opening of the trial. The session concluded with an adjournment until an unspecified date before the end of July (the judicial holidays last the month of August). The judge heard the arguments as to whether the detainees should be granted bail.

The Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile, FORSC) launched a Justice for Ernest Manirumva campaign shortly after his death. Civil society leaders have said that all leads need to be investigated – including of more senior members of the security forces.

Their work has put their Managing Director, Pacifique Nininahazwe, at risk. In November, he was warned about an assassination attempt against him. The same source warned him yesterday that he needed “to be careful”. Most people in his position would be petrified, but Pacifique says he is used to the pressure.

Hopefully, if those responsible for Ernest Manirumva’s killing are brought to justice, this pressure will decrease.

Tom Gibson is Amnesty International’s campaigner on Burundi