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Burundi: Verdict in Activist’s Killing Trial Fails to Deliver Justice; Despite Many Leads, Investigation Fell Short

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The verdict on 22 May, 2012 in the trial of those accused of killing Ernest Manirumva, a Burundian anti-corruption activist, has been a missed opportunity to deliver justice, 20 Burundian and international non-governmental organizations said today in a joint statement.  The outcome was a grave disappointment to those who have campaigned for his killers to be held to account, as potentially important evidence in the case was not pursued.

Manirumva had been investigating several sensitive cases at the time of his killing in 2009, including allegations of large-scale police corruption and illegal weapons purchases. Human rights defenders and journalists work in difficult conditions in Burundi and are regularly harassed and intimidated because of their work.

“The Public Prosecutor willfully ignored calls to investigate senior figures within the Burundian security services and national police who may have been involved in the killing of Manirumva,” said Hassan Shire Sheikh, Executive Director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project.

On 22 May, the Higher Instance Court of Bujumbura sentenced 14 individuals to lengthy prison terms for the murder of Manirumva. Early reports have stated that eight individuals were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Manirumva, three individuals to 20 years’ imprisonment for complicity to murder and three individuals to 10 years’ imprisonment for failure to inform public authorities/non-assistance to persons in danger. After procedural delays of one year and nine months, the trial was completed in just three days, between 5 and 11 April.  The Public Prosecutor did not consider important leads and recommendations from reports by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which assisted in investigations, and a commission of inquiry established by the Burundian authorities.

Ernest Manirumva, Vice President of the civil society organization Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de lutte contre la corruption et les malversations économiques, OLUCOME) and Vice President of an official body that regulates public procurement, was found stabbed to death outside his home in the capital, Bujumbura, on 9 April 2009.

“Since 2009, the Burundian authorities have left the family of Ernest Manirumva and Burundian civil society wondering if light would ever be shed on this crime,” said Erwin van der Borght, Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director.  “The court’s ruling today fails to uncover the truth and leaves possible perpetrators at large.”

The Burundian government established three commissions of inquiry to investigate the killing and accepted an offer from the FBI to assist in investigations. The first two commissions were criticized by Burundian civil society organizations for lacking independence and being inactive. A third commission was more effective and led to a number of arrests. The FBI report called on the Burundian government to carry out additional investigations, including questioning and taking DNA samples from individuals cited in the FBI report.

“The judicial authorities have at every stage in the proceedings disregarded the FBI’s recommendations, and none of the police or military officials mentioned in the FBI report have even been investigated,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, delegate general of the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC).

The trial opened in July 2010 but was postponed numerous times. On 15 June 2011, the prosecution requested that the case file be investigated further without specifying why.  The lawyers for the partie civile (the party representing the victim’s family and OLUCOME) asked for these investigations to include questioning, cross-examination, phone record checks and DNA tests of individuals named in the FBI and the third commission of inquiry reports.

Nine months later, when the public hearing re-opened on 30 March 2012, the court rejected the request of the partie civile on the grounds that the substantive hearing should start as soon as possible.

“Unless all credible leads are investigated, some of the perpetrators will continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution,” said Mary Lawlor, Director of Front Line Defenders. “After years of campaigning, today’s result is a serious blow to civil society.”

Lawyers for the partie civile also asked the court on 30 March 2012 to admit recordings and a transcript of a police officer’s statement as evidence. Gilbert Havyarimana, a former police officer who said he had witnessed Ernest Manirumva’s murder, spoke to a Burundian radio station, African Public Radio (Radio Publique Africaine, RPA) in February 2012 about the crime, claiming that certain members of the security services were involved, potentially exculpating some of the defendants on trial.

In a demonstration of loss of faith in the judicial process, the partie civile said that they would not ask for damages because the court had not considered all available evidence.

“The court’s failure to accept the partie civile’s requests compromises its judicial independence.” said Gabriel Rufyiri, the President of the Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory.  “There is still a burning need for the authorities to investigate all credible leads, no matter how sensitive.”

Several defendants were unlawfully held in pre-trial detention for almost three years. The court failed to renew their preventative detention every 30 days, as required under article 75 of the Burundian Criminal Procedure Code, and to notify suspects of the charges against them when they were arrested.

The verdict of the court has left civil society frustrated and disappointed. Manirumva’s murder had a profound impact on activists and galvanized them to form the “Justice for Ernest Manirumva” campaign in 2009. “Activists remain under constant pressure and several have been intimidated in connection with their work on Manirumva’s case,” said Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Members of civil society organizations and journalists who have publicly denounced Manirumva’s killing and the failings of judicial inquiries into the case have themselves received threats.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), and Gabriel Rufyiri, president of OLUCOME, received a tip from an informant in March 2010 that state agents were preparing to assassinate one of them by orchestrating a car accident.  In November 2009, Pacifique Nininahazwe, delegate general of FORSC, received warnings of a plot to assassinate him.

When civil society organizations attempted to march without authorization on the second anniversary of Manirumva’s death in April 2011, two demonstrators, Gabriel Rufyiri and Claver Irambona also of OLUCOME, were arrested by the police commissioner of the western region, David Nikiza, who is among the security officials cited in the FBI report. They were released a few hours later.

Claver Irambona and Prudence Bararunyeretse, another OLUCOME staff member, both told human rights organizations that they had experienced security incidents in July 2011.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and Gabriel Rufyiri were repeatedly subject to judicial summons in 2011, and were often questioned in relation to the Ernest Manirumva case file.

Human rights defenders and journalists in Burundi are regularly subjected to judicial summons in relation to their work.  Individuals working on sensitive issues have also reported receiving anonymous text messages and phone calls threatening them.

“The authorities should demonstrate support to Burundian human rights defenders and commitment to ensuring their protection by delivering justice for Ernest Manirumva’s family and OLUCOME,” said Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

The organizations that issued the joint statement are:

Burundian organizations:
Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture (ACAT)
Association pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH)
Collectif des Associations et ONGs Féminines du Burundi (CAFOB)
Collectif pour la Promotion des Associations des Jeunes (CPAJ)
Confédération des Syndicats du Burundi (COSYBU)
Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE)
Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile (FORSC)
Observatoire de l’Action Gouvernementale (OAG)
Observatoire de Lutte Contre la Corruption et les Malversations Economiques (OLUCOME)
Organisation pour la Transparence et la Gouvernance (OTRAG)
Ligue Burundaise des Droits de l’Homme  ITEKA (Ligue Iteka)
Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l’Evolution des Mentalités (PARCEM)
Union Burundaise des Journalistes (UBJ)

International organizations:
Amnesty International (AI)
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP)
Front Line Defenders
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Protection International (PI)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)



Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.