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Burundi: The Issues at Stake. Political Parties, Freedom of the Press and Political Prisoners

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After two years of negotiations, the Burundian peace process has reached a critical stage. In his capacity as Mediator, Nelson Mandela, during his latest visit to Bujumbura from 12 to 14 June renewed his support for rebel demands that President Pierre Buyoya's government should free all political prisoners regardless of their crimes and restore the rights of political parties. In March of this year Mandela also demanded that freedom of the press be restored and that all regroupment camps be dismantled. A compromise has finally been reached on this single issue: the Burundian government has promised to close all camps by 31 July 2000. On the subject of political prisoners, the government defended itself by suggesting that the situation was more complex than it seemed and denounced propaganda from the Tanzanian facilitation team and certain Hutu parties. Buyoya considers - in common with the majority of Tutsi opinion - that these prisoners are either members of armed groups or terrorists who participated in the massacres that followed the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993.

At a moment when the peace process is entering into its final phase, the demands that Nelson Mandela has made to the Burundian government are justified for several reasons. Firstly, Buyoya, who regained power after the July 1996 putsch, must show willingness to co-operate in order to merit a role in the transition period that will follow the peace agreement. Secondly, all the rebel groups must be brought to the negotiating table and their requests must be heard. There can be no credible negotiations as long as rebel sympathisers remain in prison accused of nothing more than representing a threat to state security. Thirdly, there can be no constructive dialogue with political parties whose activities are proscribed by the authorities. Finally, freedom of the press is fundamental to ensuring the success of the peace process. As long as the population has not been fully informed about the progress of the Arusha negotiations, the chances of signing a peace agreement remain slight.

Mandela's demands regarding prisoners, political parties and the press should probably be dealt with through negotiations rather than be a condition for their continuation. However, it is essential that the government make a significant gesture of compromise as a demonstration of its goodwill to the Burundian population: it should initiate a debate on expected changes during the transition period. These demands have been formulated to strengthen the peace process through participation of the rebels and of the people. In this debate the reluctance of the government to accept compromises is not without good reason. In particular, it warns that Mandela, by choosing to adopt the demands of the Hutu political parties and the rebels, may provoke a violent Tutsi reaction. It also believes that it is unfair to apply pressure to only one of the parties involved in the conflict. These complaints, however justified, do not diminish the government's responsibility to show good faith at this critical stage of the peace process. Political parties: purges, splits and crackdowns

FRODEBU (Front pour la Democratie du Burundi), the party that won the 1993 elections, accuses the government of authoritarianism and harassment of the opposition. Conversely, the government accuses the FRODEBU of civil disobedience and mobilising the Hutu population against it. Although this polarisation reflects the hard-line positions of the two parties, at this critical moment of the peace process two paradoxes must be kept in mind. Firstly, although the parties opposed to the current regime were able to emerge during the period of democratisation granted by Buyoya himself in the early nineties, as of 1994, they also promoted and benefited from the civil war. Most of them used violence to obtain positions of power in 1994, when the Convention of Government was signed. None of them can a priori be considered as defenders of democracy or human rights.

Moreover, none of the parties are showing signs of a new attitude, which could contribute to building a peaceful future in the country. Instead, the president and the parties have engaged in politicking and manipulation. Their radical positions are aimed at pandering to their natural electorate, or to ensure a role in the institutions of transition. These manoeuvres have led Pierre Buyoya to purge the UPRONA (Union de Progres National) and its anti-Arusha faction, to crack down on his Tutsi radical opponents from PARENA (Parti pour le Redressement National), and to guarantee impunity to the police, armed forces and administration in their harassment of the FRODEBU militants. These constant re-alignments have given rise to internal divisions within the parties, alliances and counter-alliances whose political objective has sometimes been solely limited to carrying out personal attacks on Buyoya.

Which freedom for what media?

Control of the media is an obsession that is deeply entrenched and shared by all Burundian politicians. The government, its allies and the opposition are all responsible for the current state of the media, which is typically militant and sometimes defamatory.

Due to heavy state control of the media and the reluctance of the government to publicise its role in the Arusha negotiations, the media has failed to fulfil its duty to inform the people. In 1996, a suspension of the freedom of press followed a three-year period during which the media of various parties had encouraged violence by spreading messages of ethnic hatred. At present however, although the government is adamant that restrictions are necessary, in truth they are being used as a pretext to control the information that people receive about the Arusha negotiations. Henceforth, a radical change of policy towards the press is required in order to prepare the people for a peace agreement and to pave the way for the return of exiled politicians. Notably, radio must be made accessible to all parties involved in the conflict. It must provide support for the process of national reconciliation and reconstruction of the country through a debate that is as broad and healthy as possible.

The issue of political prisoners.

The debate on the question of political prisoners strikes right at the heart of the conflict in Burundi as it involves the issue of guilt. Each side has diametrically opposed opinions about who is responsible for the violence that has blighted the last thirty years. Each side accuses the other of being responsible for � genocide �: the Hutus cite the events that occurred in 1972, whilst the Tutsis refer to those of 1993. However, to ensure a meaningful peace, it is essential to deal with the past. No long-term reconciliation is possible without an effective method for assigning guilt, determining sentences and guaranteeing the future rule of law. At the same time this issue (which has already become dangerously politicised) risks preventing a peace agreement being reached unless an equitable compromise is found in the very near future.

In reality, Burundi has no prisoners of conscience in the traditional sense of the term. Many who are in prison today are guilty of heinous crimes. Nevertheless, other prisoners are detained for political reasons. For many the mere suspicion of having been involved in the 1993 massacres, or of being a sympathiser of armed rebellion, have provided sufficient pretext for their arrest and long pre-trial detention. By May 2000, more than 6500 prisoners were awaiting trail.

The time to make compromises on this matter has now arrived. The government must face up to this unpleasant truth. It may not be able to free all political prisoners without endangering the rule of law in Burundi and alienating Tutsi public opinion, but it can and should release some of the prisoners.


To the mediator, Nelson Mandela

On the issue of political parties

1. Demand from the Burundian government the immediate, strict, impartial and total application of the measures contained in the Constitutional Act of Transition of June 1998 which regulates the activities of political parties, especially Article 60 which authorises parties to hold meetings freely on a communal, provincial and national level.

2. Immediately disqualify from the negotiations and bar from the institutions of transition leaders of political parties who, in future, are found to be guilty of defamation, inciting ethnic hatred or using verbal or physical violence against adversaries.

On the media

3. Demand from the government that all political and rebel parties have immediate, equitable and unconditional access to all official media.

4. Include within the peace agreement and the programme of institutions of transition a communications policy, which will ensure that the contents of this agreement are publicised.

On the issue of political prisoners:

5. Recognise that certain prisoners should be freed - for example those who have supported the rebellion and are not guilty of bloodshed - as a significant compromise gesture from the government. And in return:

6. Demand an immediate cease-fire from the rebels when these prisoners are released.

To the government of Burundi

On the issue of political parties

7. Implement immediately, comprehensively and equitably the measures contained in the Constitutional Act of Transition of June 1998, which regulates the activities of political parties, especially Article 60 which authorises parties to hold meetings freely on a communal, provincial and national level.

On the media

8. Grant to all political and rebel parties immediate, equitable and unconditional access to all official media.

On the issue of political prisoners:

9. Free certain prisoners - for example, supporters of the rebellion who are not guilty of bloodshed.

To the Burundi donor community

On the issue of media

10. Provide support for the professional training of Burundian journalists and for programmes providing information about the peace agreement and how the institutions of transition will work.

11. Support, as part of the peace accord, the creation of an independent and non-partisan media.

On the issue of political prisoners

12. Support an investigation into the cases of all remaining prisoners to ensure that they are brought to trial before the 31 of December 2000, and ensure that their living conditions are improved.

13. Provide support for the rehabilitation and the reintegration of prisoners who have been freed.

14. Mobilise funds and personnel to ensure that the International Judicial Commission and the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission are able to begin work immediately after the peace agreement is signed.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 July 2000

 PDF version of Burundi: The Issues at Stake. Political Parties, Freedom of the Press and Political Prisoners Download the report as a PDF file in A4 format

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