NAIROBI — On Tuesday, three human rights organizations demanded the unconditional release of five Burundian activists who are currently in jail on charges of insurrection and undermining state security.


Last month, intelligence agents in Burundi detained the five as they prepared to board a flight from the country’s commercial hub, Bujumbura, to Uganda.

They were arrested and taken to the main prison in Bujumbura on charges of rebellion, undermining domestic security of the state, and disrupting the operation of public finances.

They could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison under Burundian law.

Human Rights Watch, Burundi Human Rights Initiative, and Amnesty International all called the charges “baseless” and demanded that they be dropped.

In a joint statement, they demanded that the Burundian government immediately and unconditionally release five human rights defenders who had been detained without cause.

“The arrests… and the serious charges brought against them signal a worsening climate for independent civil society in Burundi,” said Clementine de Montjoye, an HRW researcher specializing in Africa.

Sonia Ndikumasabo, president of the Association of Women Lawyers of Burundi, is one of the activists currently behind bars. She was detained upon arrival.

A second individual, Prosper Runyange, was also arrested that day in Ngozi, a town in the country’s north, for his involvement with the Association for Peace and the Promotion of Human Rights (APDH).

Human Rights Watch’s Montjoye expressed concern that the space for civil society to operate in Burundi would be closed if “working in partnership with or receiving funding from international groups” was treated as a criminal offense and a threat to state security.

The deeply impoverished landlocked nation has seen political progress under President Evariste Ndayishimiye, prompting the European Union and the United States to resume aid flows last year despite ongoing concerns about the rights situation.

Ndayishimiye has received acclaim for gradually ending Burundi’s isolationism after years of isolationism under the tumultuous and bloody rule of Pierre Nkurunziza.
Despite his best efforts, the African Great Lakes nation of 12 million people has not improved its dismal human rights record and continues to rank among the world’s poorest countries.

Until recently, Burundi had been under sanctions from the United States and the European Union due to a bloody crisis that broke out in 2015 when Nkurunziza made a controversial bid for a third term as president.

Around 1,200 people in Burundi lost their lives, and another 400,000 were forced to leave their home because of the unrest.