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Burundi lawyers backed over reprisals for speaking out against torture

media President Nkurunziza stands in a military vehicle during Burundi's Independence Day celebrations in Bujumbura, 1 July 2016. Onesphore Nibigira/AFP

Disbarring four Burundian lawyers who provided information on torture in the country is a violation of human rights, the head of the East African Law Society told RFI on Tuesday. Burundi’s prosecutor has requested that the lawyers be struck off the professional register for allegedly being linked to a coup plot.

“Standing up for the people is one of your jobs and they’re doing their job, disbarring them is against human rights,” said Nassor Khamis Mohamed, head of the regional bar association, of which Burundi is a member. “Disbarring them is like prosecuting them."

The four lawyers - Armel Niyongere, Lambert Nigarura, Dieudonné Bashirahishize and Vital Nshimirimana – had contributed information to the UN Committee against Torture for a report on Burundi.

A Burundi prosecutor then asked the head of the Bujumbura Bar Council to strike the lawyers off the professional register for alleged involvement in an attempted coup, according to the UN watchdog.

“We are not sure of these allegations and now we are takings statements from Burundi with care,” said EALS lawyer Mohamed. “A number of people have been arrested, a number of people have been sent to court with false allegations.”

“We are not sure if they were involved in a coup d’état or they’re involved in some other illegal activities. And we are not sure that once arrested they’ll be sent to court, they may end up elsewhere,” he said by telephone.

Q&A Nassor Khamis Mohamed

In a letter, the Committee against Torture said it pointed out that Burundi’s prosecutor did not initiate an investigation into the allegations levelled at the four lawyers, instead deciding to take sanctions immediately, undermining any presumption of innocence.

“It’s a difficult position for our colleagues in the Bujumbura Bar Council because when you get orders from the government it’s very difficult to say no," said the EALS head. "If you say no you may face the consequences.” 

The UN Committee against Torture said it had requested a response by the Burundian authorities by 11 August, while its findings on Burundi will be published on 12 August.

UN investigators have said that at least 348 people have been the victims of extrajudicial killings over the past year in a crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term in office.

The head of the East African Law Society said they have written letters to Nkurunziza to talk about the treatment of legal practitioners in Burundi, however they have not received a response.

“Things are happening in Burundi and a number of things are not correct,” Mohamed said.

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