Three teenage schoolgirls in Burundi have been sent to prison to await trial for scribbling on a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza in textbooks, activists said Thursday.
The girls, aged 15, 16 and 17, face up to five years in prison for insulting the head of state if found guilty.
Judges said the three girls should be “prosecuted for contempt of the head of state”, and ordered them to a juvenile section of a prison in the north of Burundi at Ngozi to await trial, said FENADEB, a civil society umbrella group of 48 organisations.
The trio has been in custody since March 12, when they were arrested with three other schoolgirls and a 13-year old boy. The boy was released immediately because he was below the age of criminal responsibility, while the three girls were released without charge.
The girls are accused of defacing photographs of Nkurunziza in five textbooks belonging to their school, but teachers pointed out that the books are shared among all the pupils as there are not enough for everyone to have their own.
A judicial source, who called the case “very sensitive” and said it was overseen directly by the Attorney General, reported that the girls arrived at the prison on Wednesday afternoon.
It was not clear when they might face trial, but the father of one of the girls said they were already “too scared to eat”, according to Lewis Mudge, from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In 2016, several schoolchildren were handed prison sentences for similar scribbles on the president’s face, and hundreds of pupils expelled, sparking an international outcry.
Burundi has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza in April 2015 sought a fiercely-contested third term in office.
The violence has claimed at least 1,200 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people between April 2015 and May 2017, according to estimates by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an investigation.
“With so many real crimes being committed in Burundi, it’s tragic that children are the ones being prosecuted for harmless scribbles,” HRW’s Mudge added.
“Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing schoolchildren for doodles.”
Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza, said Thursday he would not run for another term, despite widespread belief that he backed a new constitution extending term limits in a bid to cling to power.
“I will not go back on my word. Our mandate ends in 2020,” Nkurunziza said in a speech to supporters and diplomats in the central region of Gitega.
His announcement came shortly after he signed into law a new constitution that could enable him to rule until 2034.
Describing himself as “Guide” of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, Nkurunziza said he would not seek re-election at the end of his current, controversial third term.
Nkurunziza’s decision to run for election in 2015 plunged Burundi into a deep and deadly political crisis, with opponents saying his candidacy went against a peace deal that had ended more than a decade of civil war.
Last month a constitutional referendum was held to extend presidential terms to seven years.
It was widely seen as a move paving the way for Nkurunziza to run for a further two terms under the new dispensation.
“The new constitution has not been tailored for Pierre Nkurunziza, as our enemies claim,” he said.
“As far as I am concerned, I am preparing to support, with all my strength, the new president who we are going to elect in 2020.”
Burundians on Thursday will vote in a referendum on sweeping constitutional reforms that would shore up the power of President Pierre Nkurunziza and enable him to rule until 2034.
With opponents cowed, beaten, killed or living in exile, there seems little doubt the amendments will pass, enabling the 54-year-old — in power since 2005 — to remain in charge for another 16 years.
The campaign period, like the preceding three years of unrest triggered by Nkurunziza’s controversial but ultimately successful run for a third term, has been marked by intimidation and abuse, say human rights groups.
Opposition parties were allowed to rally for the first time since the start of the political crisis in 2015, drawing massive crowds during their “no” campaigns.
But critics say this was merely to provide a veneer of inclusivity.
“People seen as opposed to the referendum have been killed, kidnapped, beaten up, illegally arrested and held by state agents,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said Tuesday.
Some 4.8 million people, or a little under half the population, have signed up to vote, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which is running the referendum.
The changes will be adopted if more than 50 percent of cast ballots are in favour.
The vote is taking place in tightly-controlled conditions, and a presidential decree ruled earlier this month that anyone advising voters to boycott the vote risks up to three years in jail.
Small country, big problems
The tiny central African nation, with an equally small economy, has struggled to recover from a brutal and destructive civil war from 1993-2006 that left more than 300,000 people dead.
A peace deal, signed in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in 2000, paved the way to ending the fighting and included a provision that no leader could serve more than two five-year terms.
Nkurunziza circumvented that clause by running for a third term in 2015 that critics said was unconstitutional. A crackdown on opponents of his bid prompted a crisis that has seen 1,200 people killed and 400,000 flee their homes.
The violence and abuses are being investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) while a sustained campaign against the press has forced most independent journalists to leave the country.
Nkurunziza — a fervent Christian who believes he has a God-given right to rule and was recently declared “visionary” by his CNDD-FDD party — now wants to rewrite the constitution and extend term lengths to seven years.
This would allow him to start again from scratch after the 2020 elections.
Other reforms weaken constitutional constraints over the feared national intelligence agency and allow the revision of ethnic quotas seen as crucial to peace after the war.
The new constitution also gets rid of one of two vice-presidents and shifts powers from the government to the president.
Burundi‘s exiled opposition, gathered in an alliance called CNARED, has called for a boycott of the referendum, which it describes as the “death knell” to the 2000 agreement that helped end the bloody civil war.
The government has accused dissidents, and neighbouring countries, of planning to undermine the referendum and has deployed military units to areas bordering Rwanda to the north and Congo to the west.
Earlier this month Burundi‘s press regulator suspended broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) and warned other radio stations, including Radio France International (RFI), against spreading “tendentious and misleading” information.
African ‘third term-ism’
Amending constitutions to stay in power while holding the regular elections that foreign donors demand is a popular tactic among African leaders.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni changed the law in 2005 before running successfully for a third term. The 73-year-old has since removed age limits and is expected to run for a sixth term in 2021.
Cameroon’s Paul Biya followed Museveni’s lead in 2008 and remains in power today, as does Djibouti’s Ismael Omar Guelleh who removed term limits in 2010.
In Rwanda, Paul Kagame in 2015 changed the constitution and is now set to rule until 2034 while Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso also pushed through the removal of term limits the same year.
Zambia’s Edgar Lungu is trying the third term gambit, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila has simply refused to hold elections since the end of his constitutional terms 18 months ago.
Elsewhere in Africa, leaders have had less success avoiding term limits, with moves blocked or votes lost in Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal in the last dozen years.
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has set May 17 as the date for a referendum on a controversial constitutional reform that could keep him in power until 2034, according to a decree signed Sunday.
Critics accuse Nkurunziza of trying to stay in power for life and say a personality cult has developed around the former rebel chief who has led the central African country since 2005.
The government in October drafted reforms that would enable Nkurunziza to serve two seven-year mandates from 2020, but they have come under fire from the opposition and the international community, particularly the African Union.
The opposition says the changes could sign the death warrant for the Arusha peace accord of 2000, which helped end a 1993-2006 civil war that claimed more than 300,000 lives.
Nkurunziza ran for a third five-year term and was re-elected in 2015 despite a two-term limit under the constitution, triggering violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and sent more than 400,000 Burundians fleeing abroad.
The government had previously announced that the referendum would take place in May but had not announced the exact date.
The reforms will be adopted if 50 percent plus one vote cast ballots in favour.
Sunday’s decree said those wanting to take part in the official campaign must register with the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) between March 23 and April 6, but no-one is yet allowed to publicly declare themselves for or against the reforms.
The opposition has denounced what it describes as double standards, saying that ministers and officials with the ruling CNDD-FDD have openly campaigned for a Yes vote, while several dozen opposition activists have been arrested for pushing for a No vote.
The election commission announced last month that more than five million people had registered for the referendum and for the next election in 2020.
The United Nation’s Security Council has agreed to send its police force to Burundi in other to subdue the violence and human right abuses in the country.
More than 400 people have been killed in unrest since President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would run for a third term in office last April.
More than 200,000 people have fled their homes.
“Given an increase in violence and tension, the Security Council must have eyes and ears on the ground to predict and ensure that the worst does not occur in Burundi,” French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told Reuters.
“This is a strong act of preventative diplomacy,” he added.
Burundi earlier said it would accept no more than 50 police officers.
The government of Burundi earlier warned that it would agree to no more than 50 UN police officers.
Diplomats are now negotiating how to implement the UN Security Council’s resolution.
Although both Burundi’s opposition and government forces are ethnically mixed, some fear that the violence could descend into a repeat of the genocidal killings which the country has previously experienced.
The President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, has condemned the killing of a senior army officer shot along with his wife and bodyguard in an attack that also wounded their child.
The attack is the latest in an expanding wave of violence in the central African nation that heightened after Nkurunziza declared his interest in a third term in office.
A spokesman for the Army, Gaspard Baratuza, told reporters that Brigadier General Athanase Kararuza, who was a military adviser in the office of the vice president, was dropping his child off at a school in the capital Bujumbura on Monday when his car was attacked by rocket and gun fire.
Kararuza had previously worked as a deputy commander of an international peace force in the Central African Republic (CAR).
“He energetically fought against the coup plotters last year and exceptionally contributed in strengthening peace and security during and after elections,” Nkurunziza said in a statement late on Monday.
“We humbly pray that, with the help of God, perpetrators of the shameful acts are arrested and quickly punished according to the law.”
Reuters reports that tit-for-tat attacks between Nkurunziza’s security forces and his opponents have escalated since April 2015 when he announced a disputed bid for a third term as president. He won re-election in July.
The United Nations says more than 400 people have been killed and more than 250,000 have fled the country.
Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda, which both have an ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, have been torn apart by ethnic conflict in the past. Experts fear the recent violence during the political crisis in Burundi may reopen old ethnic wounds and risk causing civil war.
The United Nations (UN) Security Council is making moves to prevent the Burundi crisis from getting worse.
In order to ensure that, the council has approved a resolution to pave the way for a UN police force to be deployed in Burundi.
The resolution, drafted by France, calls on UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon to draw up a list of options for the proposed presence within 15 days.
The resolution welcomed the consent of Burundi’s authorities to increase the number of African Union human rights observers from 100 to 200 and allow 100 AU military experts.
It notes that 30 human rights observers and 15 military observers have been deployed so far.
The final draft was changed to overcome an objection from the United States.
The United States had been concerned about linking the United Nations efforts to broker peace in Burundi with the country’s security forces, who have been accused of human rights abuses, one council diplomat said.
The United Nations said in January it has documented cases of Burundi’s security forces gang-raping women during searches of opposition supporters’ houses and heard witness testimony of mass graves.
The East African country has been hit by unrest since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to seek a third term. He went on to win his third term bid in an election in July.
The United States on Saturday urged African leaders to “work behind the scenes” before their annual summit next weekend to convince Burundi to accept a deployment of international troops in the tiny African state amid festering political violence.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said members of the African Union Peace and Security Council expected leaders to endorse its proposed deployment of 5,000 troops to protect civilians, despite a rejection of the force by Burundi.
“I didn’t get a sense from the African countries gathered in the room that they’re going to take that as a final answer,” Power told reporters after a meeting between the U.N. Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.
“We will need leaders to work behind the scenes to get the Burundi government to change its position.
“It is in the interests of the Burundian government to consent to having an enhanced African presence in Burundi to monitor the border, to disarm those elements outside the traditional security forces and to help stabilize the situation,” Power said.
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, has said the plan to send peacekeepers would constitute “an invading force”. Nkurunziza’s re-election for a third term last year sparked the crisis, which has raised fears of an ethnic conflict in a region where memories of neighbouring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide remain fresh.
The U.N. Security Council traveled to Burundi on Thursday for one night, it’s second visit to the country in less than 10 months. The United Nations estimates the death toll at 439 people but says it could be higher. More than 240,000 people have fled abroad and the country’s economy is in crisis.
The African Union plans to seek U.N. Security Council backing for any deployment of troops. France will draft a resolution, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexis Lamek said, adding that an initial priority was to send some 100 AU human rights and military observers to Burundi.
Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Petr Iliichev said the situation in Burundi appeared to be improving, but not to the point where “we can say we should put it on the back burner.”
“For us it will be very difficult to oppose any resolution from the African Union because we always say that there should be African solutions to African problems,” he said, referring to any request for U.N. authorisation to deploy troops.
Russia is a council veto power.
“There are no signs of genocide, but there is potential for genocide … but there is no imminent threat,” he said. Iliichev said on Friday that Burundi did not need peacekeepers and instead needed help increasing its police capacity.
During a meeting with the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Nkurunziza accused neighbouring Rwanda of supporting rebels by training and arming Burundian refugees recruited on Rwandan soil. Rwanda has previously dismissed the allegations.
Burundi and Rwanda have the same ethnic mix – about 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis. A 12-year civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2005, pitted a Tutsi-led army against Hutu rebel groups.
Gunmen attacked military sites in Burundi’s capital on Friday and 12 of the assailants were killed while 20 were arrested after heavy fighting, the Army said.
Soldiers told Reuters at least five of their number were also killed, but an official Army spokesman said they were only wounded in the latest flare-up in a nation that Western powers fear may be sliding back into ethnic conflict.
The sound of firing echoed across the capital Bujumbura throughout Friday after heavy gunfire and blasts erupted in the early hours. Residents said streets were empty and police were out in force at a time when people normally head to work.
The outbreak of violence, the worst since a failed coup in May, is unnerving for a region that remains volatile two decades after the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
The U.N. Security Council was briefed on the developments in Burundi late on Friday. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who is president of the council for December, said the 15-member body was ready to consider “further steps.”
“The members of the Security Council demand that all armed groups put aside their arms and cease all forms of destabilizing activities in order to end the cycle of violence and retaliation,” Power told reporters.
Until now, battle lines in Burundi’s crisis have followed the political divide. But Western powers and regional nations fear old ethnic rifts could reopen.
The United States said it was concerned by the fighting and the African Union called for dialogue.
The United States called for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to hold a special session on Burundi next Thursday. The call got the required backing of one-third of the body’s 47 members so the session will go ahead, the United Nations said.
Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 2005, had pitted rebel groups of the Hutu majority, including one led by current President Pierre Nkurunziza, against what was then an Army led by the Tutsi minority. Rwanda has the same ethnic mix.