/ 19 January 2007

Pressure forces acquittal of Burundi coup plotters

Pressure from the international community, NGOs and civil society led to the acquittal recently of five alleged coup plotters imprisoned in Burundi in August this year. The men were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government, but the accusations were widely believed to have been fabricated by elements in the government. Well-placed sources in Burundi said the judge’s decision to acquit five of the accused was a “political decision due to international pressure.”

Five of seven alleged coup plotters, including ex-president Domitien Ndayizeye, were found not guilty of plotting to overthrow the government and were released after spending the past six months in jail.

“It is a positive development which was very urgently needed,” Jan van Eck, a Burundi analyst told the Mail & Guardian. Van Eck says the alleged coup plot had been “destabilising the country, creating the impression that the government was becoming undemocratic, oppressing the opposition and not honouring the election promise to apply good governance”. This is “a step in the right direction,” he added.

In 2005 the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected in a landslide victory in the country’s first election since the end of a civil war that destabilised the country for over a decade.

Explaining the decision, the spokesperson for the supreme court, Elie Ntungwanayo, said: “The court judged that the accusations lacked foundation. [Information was] based on testimonials by Alain Mugabarabona and Tharcisse Ndayishimiye, and [we] could therefore not rely on their sole testimonials as no other proof had been found.”

Mugabarabona, a former rebel leader, and Ndayishimiye, who were imprisoned on the same charges, received hefty sentences of 20 years and 15 years in prison respectively, allegedly because they had confessed to planning a coup.

“Since the two accused have confessed to having organised meetings in the hope of organising a coup d’état, it is only logical for the court to consider their testimonials and charge them accordingly,” said Ntungwanayo.

Others have questioned whether the two men are really guilty: “How can a coup be organised by two people with no help from the army?” asked Deo Niyonzima, one of the accused acquitted this week and an opposition party leader. Niyonzima added that he found the accusations ludicrous.

“Hussein Radjabu [the leader of the ruling party] is behind this coup set up,” Niyonzima said in an interview with the M&G. “They wanted to keep quiet all those who did not agree to their political programme … they want to create a dictatorship.”

Niyonzima, who was released on Tuesday, still battles with the pain caused by injuries he received when he was tortured by security officers shortly after his arrest.

“They beat me with galvanised pipes, steel wires; inserted nails in my shin. There were eight people beating me from all angles,” says Niyonzima. “They beat me on my lower back where my nerves are, they tried to break my back in two,” he says.

He was beaten in an attempt to get him to consent to allegations of which he knew nothing. “They asked me to lie,” says Niyonzima.

A medical evaluation done on Niyonzima while he was in prison proved he had been tortured. “I still have scars on my body,” he says.

Had it not been for his lawyer’s rapid public denouncement of the torture, which led to a visit from the minister of human rights, who acknowledged the torture, Niyonzima believes that he and the other alleged coup plotters would be dead.

“In terms of the law we were innocent, but in terms of the political will, we were the enemies,” says Niyonzima.

He believes that they owe their liberty not to the court system but to the pressure applied to the government by civil society, human rights organisations, the European Union and other foreign donors.

“We will lodge a complaint on an international level,” says Niyonzima.