Children’s rights organizations are demanding the release of five students who are in custody of Burundian intelligence agents.
Their crime? Insulting the head of the state by doodling on a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza in a textbook.
The students — three men aged between 19 and 20 and two women whose ages remain unknown — were accused of defacing illustrations of the president in their textbooks, by writing messages like “Get out” or “No to 3rd term,” according to Human Rights Watch, and arrested on June 3.
Immediately after the first arrests were conducted at Muramvya, hundreds of students took to the streets to demand the release of their classmates. Security forces shot and injured two students and a motorcycle driver, who later died. They also arrested three more students. Six out of the eleven students were released on the basis of being underage, but the five older students are still in detention and could face five years in prison.
“The problem is that the judicial system is really under party control,” said Carina Tertsakian, an HRW analyst on Burundi, who urged not to view the students as part of a bigger political movement. “Over the past year it has got significantly worse. Even though there are judges that are trying to do a good job they are often obstructed and overruled. There have been some pretty outrageous trials and verdicts in Burundian courts.”
This isn’t the only time students have been targeted in government crackdowns. On May 27, school administration expelled hundreds of students out of a secondary school in the community of Ruziba for defacing their textbooks. On June 14, a further 230 students were thrown out of a school in Ruyigi province for the same reason.
Jacques Nshimirimana, head of a Burundian children’s rights foundation, said in an interview with Africa News his federation was aware there were more than 600 students under arrest by the Burundi government over these minor infractions.
“Today we can count 668 school children who were arrested for having doodled on a photo of the head of state. But these school children are in various locations.” quoted Nshimirimana. “Today the question is with respect to what kind of charges have been pressed against these students.”
“In various parts of the country, school children have been arrested or suspended from school because their books had scribbles on pictures of the Head of State,” Christof Heyns, one of three independent experts in the country and head of U.N. Independent Investigation on Burundi, said. “Some of them face the prospect of spending five to 10 years in jail.”