Tony Germain Nkina is a lawyer and one of the last people publicly associated with Burundi’s once thriving human rights movement still in jail today. He was arrested in 2020 and convicted in 2021, despite the lack of any evidence against him. Human rights groups have called his trial a travesty of justice and believe he is serving a five-year sentence in all likelihood because of his past human rights work. Human Rights Watch’s Birgit Schwarz talks to Burundi Researcher Clémentine de Montjoye about why Nkina’s case is emblematic for the state of human rights in Burundi today, and how his release would signal that Burundi’s authorities are serious about democratic reforms and breaking with the country’s repressive past.
How did you meet Nkina?
Tony is a lawyer who used to work with a group advocating for human rights and better prison conditions. We met in 2014 when I was researching abuses against human rights defenders and journalists for a regional organization.
Back then, Burundi had a vibrant civil society and human rights movement. The organization Tony represented in Kayanza province, the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH), was one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country. Tony was a committed and principled human rights defender who cared deeply about helping the most vulnerable, especially in Burundi’s notoriously tough prisons.
When, in April 2015, Burundi’s former president, Pierre Nkurunziza, decided to run for a controversial third term despite a two-term limit set forth in the Arusha Accords – the peace agreement brokered at the end of a brutal civil war that left roughly 300,000 dead – independent nongovernmental organizations were at the forefront of organizing protests. Security forces responded with brutal force. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and threats against those perceived to be political opponents became almost daily occurrences and plunged the country into a crisis of escalating violence and repression.
Most of the main independent civil society organizations, including APRODH, were suspended. Their bank accounts were frozen. Several human rights defenders were jailed, among them was one of Tony’s former colleagues who was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment for alleged state security offenses. The president of APRODH, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, almost lost his life in an assassination attempt. Working as a human rights defender became too dangerous. Activists either fled into exile or went underground. After the suspension of APRODH in 2015, Tony ceased his human rights activities and only worked as a lawyer. But the worry that his past would catch up would always be there. Being associated with Burundi’s human rights movement can have severe repercussions.
Why was he arrested?
Tony was arrested in October 2020 while visiting an area in northern Burundi where rebel groups were active at the time. He had gone there to meet a client he was advising on a land dispute. In June 2021, Tony was found guilty by a provincial court of collaboration with armed groups, despite a lack of evidence. This is a common accusation against perceived opponents and critics in Burundi. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.
In September 2021, an appeals court upheld the conviction, even though his lawyers showed he had visited the area for legitimate professional reasons, and despite prosecutors producing zero credible evidence that Tony was supporting a rebel group.