Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.  

He was freed in 1996, and immediately started the Association for Detained Persons (ABDP), through which he would move around prisons monitoring the welfare and wellbeing of inmates and mobilising legal representation for those without. His intervention was a massive success, and as friends and relatives started receiving their long-detained loved ones thanks to his intervention, he was encouraged to look beyond prisoners and advocate for human rights beyond the prisons.

“People with other issues like land conflicts, and other victims of injustice had started coming to me. But legally, my mandate was limited to advocacy for prisoners’ rights. So, if I was to be of help to other people, I had to expand my mandate,” he says.

 

So, in 2001, he started the Association for Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH). With support from Amnesty International, APRODH opened branch offices in other provinces of Burundi and started sensitising locals about the Burundian Penal Code, criminal procedure, among others, to create a civically conscious citizenry. It also started monitoring, documenting and carrying out countrywide advocacy against human rights violations, thanks to their office presence in a good number of provinces.  

“We also started training policemen and women on the lawful handling of prisoners, and where prisoners couldn’t afford legal representation, we would step in to pay their fees, whenever possible,” he says.

But APRODH and Claver’s cordial ties with the government of then President Pierre Nkurunziza were not to last.  As President Pierre Nkurunziza neared the end of his constitutional two terms in office, he planned to insist on a third term, and he approached Claver to support his quest, which the latter flatly declined. Then, in 2014, Claver, on a radio program, criticised the government’s recruitment and training of a youth para-military outfit – imbonerakure ahead of the country’s elections due the following year.

He was immediately arrested and released three months later due to international pressure on the Burundian government for his release, but his freedom was short-lived. On 3 August 2015, Claver was shot by a gun man in what was widely seen as a political assassination attempt. The bullets shattered his jaw, his voice glands and back vertebra, and Claver had to be airlifted to Belgium for specialised treatment, where he spent nearly two years without speaking and eight months without eating.

As if that was not enough, while he was away for treatment, Claver’s son and son-in-law were killed in quick succession by people widely believed to have been state agents, and Claver himself had to be put under 24/7 protection by Belgium security on his hospital bed. APRODH was consequently de-registered in 2016, and Claver had to relocate the remainder of his family to Belgium, where he remains a refugee, to date.

Despite all that life-threatening experience, Claver remains undeterred, and continues to monitor developments in Burundi, and to carry out international advocacy for human rights reform back home. He says he does it for those who cannot speak for themselves.

“At least for me, I was able to recover my voice. There are those who are voiceless. Someone must speak up for them,” he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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