Geneva, Switzerland | AFP | A legal complaint against Burundi was filed with a UN rights body on Thursday, over punitive actions taken against lawyers and activists who cooperated with a UN review of the country’s rights record.
The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT), charging that Burundian authorities’ decision to disbar and suspend four lawyers constituted a “reprisal” for their participation in a 2016 rights review.
The complaint alleges that the four — Dieudonne Bashirahishize, Armel Niyongere, Vital Nshimirimana and Lambert Nigarura — “were sanctioned by the Burundian courts, without a fair trial and on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations.”
This happened “after they raised public concerns and provided information to the CAT regarding human rights violations perpetrated in Burundi by the government.”
The reprisals came after the four assisted the CAT, which periodically assesses the performances of the 156 countries that have ratified an international convention against torture, in a regular review of Burundi’s record.
They had been working to document cases of torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention in Burundi, the complaint said, including during the 2015 political protest campaigns against Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, which left 1,200 people dead and drove 400,000 from their homes.
The Burundian delegation had, in an unprecedented move, walked out halfway through a special review in 2016, angered by a report filed by non-governmental groups.
“In a textbook case of retaliation, Bashirahishize, Niyongere and Nshimirimana were subsequently disbarred and Nigarura was given a one-year suspension and a five-year ban from sitting on the executive committee of the Bar Association,” ISHR said.
“Furthermore, the victims and their families were threatened, had their personal and real property arbitrarily seized, and were forced to leave Burundi and go into exile,” the non-governmental organisation said in a statement.
The complaint argues that Burundi violated Article 13 of the torture convention, which “guarantees that victims of torture should be protected from reprisals for bringing complaints or providing evidence of torture to the CAT.”
The UN Committee Against Torture comprises 10 independent experts who issue opinions and recommendations that carry reputational weight.
However, they have no power to compel states to follow their rulings and it can often take years before the panel reaches a verdict.