I survived imprisonment in Burundi
Germain Rukuki / Al’Jazeera :
In July 2017, my wife Emelyne Mupfasoni and I were woken up by dozens of heavily armed members of the security forces who stormed our home in Burundi. Emelyne was five months away from giving birth to our third child. The officers searched our house, seized my wife’s laptop, drove me to my office to search there too, and seized my laptop and other items. They then took me to the cells of the National Intelligence Service where I was held in custody for two weeks. I was kept in inhuman conditions in the National Intelligence Service cell in Bujumbura before being transferred to Ngozi prison in northern Burundi.
My arrest came as no surprise. Human rights defenders, young people and political opponents from Burundi who called for the respect of the law have been targeted as criminals since 2015. In April of that year, then-President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to stand for a third term in office a move widely considered to be in breach of the country’s constitution. As many Burundians voiced their rejection of this move in street demonstrations, the government launched a wave of repression across the country.
As a result, civil society organisations, which were at the forefront of protests against Nkurunziza, came under relentless attack. Many human rights defenders, opposition leaders and journalists were forced to leave Burundi and many of those who have remained faced threats and reprisals, including arrest, prosecution on trumped-up charges, and enforced disappearance. The situation has led to more than 400,000 Burundians fleeing into exile in neighbouring countries.
My work also did not go unnoticed. I had already narrowly escaped arrest and kidnapping on several occasions. When I was arrested, having seen the many who had lost their lives before me and others who had gone missing under similar conditions, I immediately thought that my life was coming to an end and the countdown had begun. I was accused of a slew of sham charges, including “rebellion”, “destruction and degradation of private and public buildings”, “attack against the authority of the state”, “participation in the insurrectionary movement” and “threatening state security”. My previous work with Action by Christians for Abolition of Torture (ACAT Burundi) was used against me. I have always been passionate about improving the world, saving lives and transforming the space where I live. I hate injustice and I do not like to see other people in pain. That is why I joined ACAT Burundi in 2004. From 2006 to 2010, I was part of the ACAT volunteer team that visited detention facilities across the country, before becoming the organisation’s head of finance and administration in 2011. I then went to work for the Association of Catholic Jurists of Burundi (AJCB) until I was arrested. I was sentenced to 32 years in prison simply for defending human rights. Being imprisoned was incredibly hard. I was harassed and persecuted. Everything in prison was done with the intention of making me suffer, making me depressed, discouraging me and silencing other committed human rights defenders.
I had spent nearly a decade visiting prisons and I thought I knew what it was like to be inside but I was wrong. I learned what prison was really like when I was detained and I knew that when I was eventually released, I would use this information to educate people about Burundi’s prison system.
In Burundi, prisons have lost their meaning – they are no longer correctional facilities. Instead, prisons have become places that confine people like me political opponents, those who have dared express their opinions, and other innocent people. If your views bother certain authorities, you are in trouble.
While in prison, I found strength and resilience in my innocence. I knew that, sooner or later, the truth would come out. I was not the first person to be wrongfully arrested, nor was I the first person to suffer that kind of injustice and persecution. My case revealed everything that had been done anonymously to previous victims.
Knowing I was imprisoned for a good cause, for defending human rights, was comforting. My case was made widely known to the Burundian people and within the international community, and I knew that would help me and subsequent victims. In a way, I felt as though being put in prison was better than being kidnapped as I could still live in hope that I would one day regain my freedom and my family.
I was eventually released in June 2021 and I was overjoyed. The first thing I did was contact my family, my former colleagues and my friends. I could not wait to see my family again, including my sons, the youngest of whom I had never met as he was born four months after my arrest. They give me such a sense of pride.
I am so grateful for the support I received from human rights organisations during my arbitrary detention and since my release from prison. Being part of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign was incredible and the waves of messages and letters from its supporters around the world gave me strength and courage and reinforced my commitment to defending human rights.
Despite my release, the human rights situation in Burundi remains alarming and my country still has a long way to go. In May 2020, a new president was elected but hopes for a major change in the status quo have diminished.
At his inauguration last year, President Evariste Ndayishimiye declared his intention “to build Burundi on solid foundations, namely: good governance, respect and protection of human rights”. However, he quickly went on to dismiss some human rights defenders as “puppets of the colonists”.
Despite some overtures by the president towards the media in 2021, his government continues to view human rights work with suspicion, and severe restrictions on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, remain in place.
According to various reports, there have also been numerous enforced disappearances, which the president and various other authorities continue to ignore, while rates of violence against women, abductions and assassinations remain high. The Burundian authorities have forgotten the struggle they experienced before coming to power and now they are doing nothing to guarantee stability and a future for our children. This needs to change, otherwise, it is the young generations who will suffer.
Being imprisoned helped me identify the flaws that plague the world, and it has made me determined to find positive and lasting solutions so we can all enjoy our rights and freedoms. Since my release, I have founded the organisation Together for the Support of Human Rights Defenders in Danger (ESDDH).
As a victim and survivor, I know how much journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and other people like them deserve support for their work. To people experiencing political persecution, I want to say: Stay strong and resilient, it will end one day and you too will be able to regain your freedom and your families.