Human Rights Defender Still Detained Despite Acquittal
Good news met bad yesterday in Burundi, as the lawyer Tony Germain Nkina continued to be held in prison despite his recent acquittal, meaning his detention is now illegal.
Nkina, a lawyer who previously worked for a leading Burundian human rights organization, is one of the last people publicly associated with the country’s once thriving human rights movement and still in prison today. In 2020, while visiting a client in Kabarore commune, he was arrested and accused of working with armed groups. He was briefly detained by the intelligence service in Kayanza, then transferred to police detention, and finally to Ngozi prison, where he is currently detained. Last year, the court of Kayanza convicted Nkina of “collaboration with rebels who attacked Burundi,” and sentenced him to five years in prison, despite no evidence being presented against him.
Thankfully, this conviction was overturned by the country’s Supreme Court earlier this month and the case was sent back to the appeal court of Ngozi for retrial. On December 20, that court acquitted him and his co-accused of all charges. It was a rare moment of judicial independence in Burundi.
Following the good news of his acquittal, Nkina was expecting to be released from prison, but the prosecutor did not sign his release order. Instead, the prosecutor plans to file an appeal of the Ngozi court’s judgement to the Supreme Court. Burundian law provides for the immediate release of a person who has been acquitted, regardless of an appeal. The authorities’ refusal to release him is therefore illegal and his continued detention makes a mockery of the entire judicial system.
On 8 December 2022, the Burundian Supreme Court quashed the five year conviction of the human rights defender and lawyer Tony Germain Nkina, which was previously confirmed on 29 September 2021 by the Ngozi Appeal Court. The human rights defender has been detained at the Ngozi central prison since 13 October 2020. The new appeal trial must take place without delay, as per the Supreme Court’s recommendation.
Tony Germain Nkina is a well known human rights lawyer in Kayanza province, who provides legal assistance to detained persons and victims of human rights abuses. He is the former representative of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues – APRODH), a leading human rights group in Burundi until 2015. APRODH worked to protect human rights in general, and the rights of detained persons in particular, and provided legal and psychological assistance to detained persons and victims of abuse as well as worked to raise public awareness on the prevention of all forms of abuse of humans and persons in pre-trial detention. In 2015, the government suspended the organization as part of a crackdown on independent civil society.
On 13 October 2020, Tony Germain Nkina was arrested without a warrant in Kabarore, where he was visiting a client for his professional work as a lawyer. In June 2021, a court in Kayanza found Tony Germain Nkina guilty of collaboration with armed groups – a common accusation against perceived opponents and critics of the government in Burundi – and sentenced him to five years in prison. On 16 July 2021, the human rights defender’s lawyer filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal of Ngozi. His lawyer reported that Tony Germain Nkina was questioned regarding APRODH. The human rights defender was found guilty of complicity with armed groups and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of one million Burundian francs (approximately 460 Euro).
Longtemps membre de l’Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, qu’il représentait dans la province de Kayanza, Tony Nkina a milité pour venir en aide aux détenus les plus vulnérables. Après la réélection plus que contestée du président Nkurunziza, en 2015, les activités de l’APRODH ont été suspendues et ses avoirs gelés. Dans le même temps la plupart des ONG qui œuvraient au Burundi ont été contraintes de réduire leurs activités ou de quitter le pays. Plusieurs membres de l’APRODH ont été arrêtés et condamnés à de lourdes peines de prison sous des accusations fallacieuses.
Refusant de quitter le pays, au contraire de nombreux autres défenseurs des droits humains qui se sont résolus à l’exil, Tony Nkina a continué à pratiquer son métier. Mais en 2020, alors qu’il s’était rendu dans le nord du pays pour y assister un client dans le cadre d’un litige foncier, il a été arrêté et mis en procès sous l’inculpation de « collaboration avec des groupes armés ». Malgré ses dénégations et l’absence de toute preuve, il a été condamné à cinq années de prison et est toujours aujourd’hui détenu. L’avènement du nouveau président Ndayishimiye n’a malheureusement rien changé à sa situation.
L’avocat jouit d’une immunité de parole et d’écriture quand il défend la cause de son client. Propos de Maître Gustave Niyonzima, avocat du Dr Christophe Sahabo dans les juridictions internationales, après l’arrestation de Maître Sandra Ndayizeye qui défend Dr Christophe Sahabo dans les cours et tribunaux du Burundi. Me Gustave Niyonzima estime que cet emprisonnement ternit gratuitement la Justice burundaise.
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.
Appeals Court Upholds 5-Year Sentence for Tony Germain Nkina
The decision in the Court of Appeal of Ngozi to uphold the conviction and five-year prison sentence for a lawyer who had been affiliated to a human rights group in Burundi was a travesty of justice, Human Rights Watch and five other international human rights groups said today. The following is their statement:
Shocking Decision as Appeal Court Upholds Conviction of Lawyer Tony Germain Nkina
Six international human rights groups – Amnesty International, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative, DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Human Rights Watch, Protection International Africa and TRIAL International – condemned the decision of the Court of Appeal of Ngozi on 29 September to uphold the conviction and five-year prison sentence of Burundian lawyer Tony Germain Nkina following an unfair trial.
“Tony Germain Nkina’s trial was a travesty of justice,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The decision by the Court of Appeal to keep him in prison, despite all the evidence about the unfairness of the trial, makes a mockery of the Burundian justice system.”
The groups believe that Nkina, a lawyer in Kayanza province, was arrested and convicted because of his former affiliation with the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH), a leading human rights group in Burundi until 2015.
Nkina was APRODH’s representative in Kayanza until the government suspended the organization in 2015 as part of a crackdown on independent civil society. He has not worked for APRODH or any other Burundian civil society organization for the past six years.
Nkina was arrested on 13 October 2020 in Kabarore commune, where he was visiting a client for his professional work as a lawyer. In June 2021, a court in Kayanza found him guilty of collaboration with armed groups – a common accusation against perceived opponents and critics in Burundi – and sentenced him to five years in prison. His client, Apollinaire Hitimana, whom he had been advising on a land dispute, was found guilty of complicity in the same offence and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. The Court of Appeal also confirmed Hitimana’s conviction and sentence.
Ex-Member of Civil Society Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison
Burundian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release lawyer, Tony Germain Nkina, who was sentenced to five years in prison in June 2021 in all likelihood because of his past human rights work, six international human rights groups said today.
The groups – Amnesty International, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative, DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Human Rights Watch, Protection International and TRIAL International – believe that the likely reason for Nkina’s arrest was his former affiliation with the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH), which was one of the leading human rights groups in Burundi until 2015.
The prosecution and imprisonment of Tony Germain Nkina is a worrying reminder that those who used to be part of Burundi’s once vibrant human rights movement are still at risk. The Burundian authorities should demonstrate their commitment to protecting human rights by immediately releasing Nkina and dropping all the charges against him. Burundi’s international partners should support the calls for his release.
Nkina, a lawyer in Kayanza province in northern Burundi, was arrested on October 13, 2020, in Kabarore commune, where he was visiting a client for his professional work. He was briefly detained by the intelligence service in Kayanza, then transferred to police detention, and finally to Ngozi prison, where he is currently detained.
October 2020 was a tense period in Kayanza following attacks by an armed group in the previous weeks, with several people killed or abducted. Nkina happened to visit Kabarore, one of the areas affected, soon after these attacks. The authorities accused him of collaborating with the armed opposition group RED-Tabara (Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi), which they hold responsible for the attacks, and charged him with endangering internal state security.
On June 15, 2021, the court of Kayanza convicted Nkina of “collaboration with rebels who attacked Burundi,” and sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of one million Burundian francs (approximately US$ 500). His client, Apollinaire Hitimana, whom he had been advising on a land dispute and was arrested with him, was found guilty of complicity in the same offence and sentenced to two and a half years and a fine of 500,000 Burundian francs. An appeal hearing is scheduled for August 12, at the Ngozi court of appeal.
In February 2021, Burundian lawyers Dieudonné Bashirahishize, Armel Niyongere, Vital Nshimirimana were informed that they were sentenced to lifelong imprisonment.
In January 2017, the three Burundian lawyers had already been disbarred from the Burundi Bar Association by request of its Ministry of Justice on the charges of “participation in an insurrectional movement”, “attempt to overthrow the state institutions” and “violation of the code of conduct”. It is believed that their disbarment is connected to their work on a human rights violation reports in Burundi, which was discussed in July 2016 by the United Nations Committee against Torture in Geneva.
Recently, the Supreme Court sentenced the lawyers, among other human rights defenders and journalists, to life imprisonment and accused them of a coup attempt against the former president. We have been informed that this judgement was issued in secret in June 2020. It was not until 2 February 2021, that the three lawyers were informed about the judgment of the Supreme Court, after the Supreme Court published a document about the case.
According to the information received, the three lawyers have tried to get access to the procedural files; however, this was not allowed and was met with threats and intimidations. As of today, the lawyers still have not had access to any case files.
1. Me Cyriaque Nibitegeka @nicyriaque,un avocat #burundi-ais et un fervent défenseur des droits de l’homme et membre fondateur de @CavibBurundi vient de regagner sa famille après plus d’une année de séquestration et de détention arbitraire en République démocratique du Congo pic.twitter.com/bokVCotg2o
2. @nicyriaque avait été arrêté le 16/02/17 par le service de renseignement militaire congolais, alors qu’il avait pris RDV avec les autorités de ce service pour aider deux #burundi-ais alors détenus et menacés d’extradition irrégulière et d’exécution extrajudiciaire pic.twitter.com/fqyyZc98yU
3.@nicyriaque et ses clients ont été détenus 1 mois au Camp militaire d’Uvira,avec les pires conditions de détention et subissant torture physique et psychologique.Ils ont été exposés à la mort et au risque d’être remis aux autorités #burundi-aises pour exécution extrajudiciaire
4.Le 13/03/17,Me @nicyriaque et ses clients ont été transférés au Centre d’interrogatoire de l’Etat-Major des Renseignements militaires à Kinshasa. Il y a été détenu 7 mois,sans aucun contact ni droit de visite; avant d’être transféré à la Prison centrale de Makala en octobre
5.@SOSTORTUREBDI condamne avec la plus grande fermeté la détention irrégulière de Me @nicyriaque et demande à la justice militaire congolaise qu’1 action pénale soit mue contre les officiers de renseignement à Uvira qui l’ont arrêté,séquestré,torturé et spolié de tous ses biens pic.twitter.com/WGTXXKq3w2
7.@SOSTORTUREBDI salue les efforts déployés par la communauté des DDH pour obtenir la libération de @nicyriaque; notamment le Bureau Conjoint des NU pour les Droits de l’Homme (RDC),@EHAHRDP et le Réseau de Protection des DDH,Victimes,Témoins et Professionnels des Médias REPRODEV pic.twitter.com/au4QD4XOz2
L’avocat burundais, Maître Cyriaque Nibitegeka est enfin libre après 14 mois de détention arbitraire en République Démocratique du Congo. Il avait été arrêté le 16 février 2017 par le renseignement militaire congolais alors que l’avocat “avait pris rendez-vous avec les autorités [congolaises] afin d’offrir ses services d’avocat à deux burundais qui étaient alors détenus et menacés d’extradition irrégulière vers leur pays d’origine” selon le communiqué de CAVIB. Loin d’être reçu comme avocat, Me Nibitegeka a été détenu avec ses clients dans des conditions horribles. Il aura passé un mois au centre d’interrogatoire de l’armée congolaise à Uvira, quatre jours dans des cachots secrets à Bukavu et Goma, 7 mois dans le cachot du renseignement militaire à Kinshasa et six mois à la prison centrale de Makala. Pourtant, ce n’était qu’un avocat, un défenseur de droits humains qui ne volait qu’au secours de ses frères burundais. Il n’a jamais été présenté devant un juge. Maitre Nibitegeka et ses deux clients ont été libérés sur une décision du parquet.
Me Cyriaque Nibitegeka est un militant des droits humains très engagé, il a déjà payé un lourd tribut pour son activisme dans la lutte contre la violation de la constitution burundaise. Il a dû sacrifier sa carrière d’enseignant à l’Université du Burundi alors qu’il était sur le point d’entamer une formation doctorale en Belgique. Le 29 mai 2015, il avait déjà été arrêté et séquestré à l’Aéroport de Dar-es-Salaam en Tanzanie où il se rendait pour le plaidoyer auprès des instances de l’EAC. Son engagement n’a pas faibli pour autant et il se dit toujours déterminé à continuer la lutte.
Nous nous réjouissons de sa libération (de même que ses deux clients) et saluons tous ceux qui, en toute discrétion, ont intervenu en sa faveur. Encore une fois, notre profonde gratitude à l’ONG Defend Defenders qui s’est particulièrement démarquée dans l’assistance à ce défenseur des droits humains.
A group of United Nations experts* has called on the authorities in Burundi to release a human rights defender who has been detained since 13 July 2017 and faces serious charges including rebellion.
“We are concerned by the seemingly arbitrary detention of Germain Rukuki, which is evidently linked to his work in defending human rights,” the experts said.
“We are particularly dismayed by the decision of Higher Court of Ntahangwa to hold him in custody despite the lack of concrete indications of guilt, which the country’s criminal code sets as a precondition for keeping someone in preventative detention.
“We call on the Burundian authorities to release Mr. Rukuki, to guarantee his physical and psychological wellbeing, and to ensure that the proceedings against him are carried out with full respect for due process.”
Mr. Rukuki has been formally charged with attacking the internal security of the State, and with rebellion for having worked for the NGO Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), where he is a previous treasurer. ACAT was banned in October 2016, along with four other Burundian organizations.