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While the situation remains tense in Burundi, Burundian lawyers are pressing ahead with an active campaign to provide legal assistance. The aim is to ensure that the rights of the hundreds of people arrested during the events of recent weeks are respected and to prevent political motives from encroaching on the pursuit of justice. Mr Salvator Kiyuku, president of the bar association at Bujumbura Court of Appeal, explains the background to this operation initiated by the bar association and supported by ASF.
Question: What triggered the mobilisation of Burundian lawyers?
Mr S. Kiyuku: Tensions have been running high in Burundi following the President’s intention to run for a third term. Widespread demonstrations have taken place in protest in Bujumbura and some parts of the interior of the country and there has also been an attempted military coup. It wasn’t long before the police embarked on waves of indiscriminate arrests in the streets and neighbourhoods of the city of Bujumbura. The authorities are using the motive ‘participation in an insurgent movement’ to justify these mass arrests. This is not a valid legal justification. As “men of the law” we had to react.
Q.: How many people have been arrested in these round-ups?
S.K.: Some sources put the numbers arrested at between 600 and 700, mainly in Bujumbura. Men, women and youths were arrested indiscriminately. Some of the arrests had troubling consequences. It is estimated that one in three people were beaten, stripped or even tortured. The police are clearly partisan, poorly trained and on edge to say the least. Then there are also those who were arrested and detained following the attempted coup; the exact number remains unknown.
Q.: What form does the assistance provided by the lawyers take?
S.K.: Very quickly (by 5 May 2015 – Ed.), more than half of the 450 lawyers belonging to the Bujumbura bar association mobilised themselves. In just one week, they managed to meet and advise 350 people who had been arrested arbitrarily. Thanks to this assistance, 70% of them were released. Even though the prosecutors can’t be said to be truly independent, cooperation with the lawyers was fairly good. We also had access to police stations and prisons. On the other hand, we are still being refused access to national security service premises, the so called ‘documentation’.
Q.: Do you intend to carry on assisting those who have been arrested?
S.K.: Absolutely. Besides those detained following the coup, hundreds of others are still being held, including in Mpimba and Muramvya prisons. Our campaigns to assist demonstrators still being held in preventive detention outside the capital will continue in partnership with ASF, which is offering us logistical and methodological assistance. Whatever exceptional circumstances our country faces, human rights – including that of defence – must be respected.