Burundian lawyer Dieudonné Bashirahishize had to flee his country: ,,Defending the rule of law is not a crime”
,,History will judge. I will not stop fighting against impunity in my country”
Text: Johan van Uffelen
One of the lawyers for whom Lawyers for Lawyers has campaigned several times is the Burundian human rights lawyer Dieudonné Bashirahishize (1978), former vice president of the East Africa Law Society, an association of lawyers in this part of Africa. He has defended many political cases and taken a strong position against the violation of human rights in Burundi. After death threats he had to go into hiding and he eventually fled his country. His driver was found dead at Lake Tanganyika not long after.
,,By early 2015 it was no longer safe for me in Burundi” says Dieudonné. After the highly controversial re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza that year a widespread campaign of attacks on political opponents started. Many crimes against humanity were allegedly committed against civilians. About 215,000 people fled the country. ,,The judiciary body, which is not independent, was used as an instrument of repression. The recruitment of judges is made on political grounds and their careers are regulated by a body which is dominated by the executive power. They are used to prosecute human rights defenders.”
And he continues: ,,According to many reports of the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the police officers who killed many young Burundians during demonstrations have never faced justice. Around 4.000 Burundians have been in jail since 2015. Simply because they were against the president’s third term of office. A Burundian named Rukuki Germain has been sentenced to 32 years in prison simply because he is a member of ACAT Burundi, a human rights organisation which has been banned in Burundi. In a case that came before the Constitutional Court about the President’s third term of office, judges were put under pressure to confirm the illegal term. After death threats the vice president of the court was forced to leave, while others agreed to change their decisions in order to stay alive. At the same time, the work of the independent media was made impossible.”
After a stay in Rwanda, Dieudonné went to Belgium where he has been living as a refugee since 2018, and where he has been joined by his wife and three children.
In exile he remains committed to human rights. Together with others lawyers he has created a coalition of lawyers which defends victims in Burundi by submitting cases of human rights violations to regional and international mechanisms for the protection of human rights.
In 2017, Dieudonné and three fellow lawyers were suspended from the Burundi Bar Association at the request of the Ministry of Justice. The Association refused to disbar the lawyers, but the Court of Appeal of Bujumbura overruled this decision. The government accused the lawyers of ‘participating in a revolutionary movement’. But the real reason behind the Ministry of Justice’s request was their participation in writing and presenting a report about human rights violations in Burundi. That report was discussed in 2016 by the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva, in the presence of the Minister of Justice and three involved lawyers, including Dieudonné.
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Lawyers for Lawyers supported Dieudonné and his colleagues. They called upon the government of Burundi to refrain from acts of reprisal. ,,This was of great moral support for us. In Burundi there was not a single lawyer who dared to defend us due to the terror. And international lawyers were denied a visa. So, in the end we were disbarred without any legal assistance while we were refugees far from our country.” Since 2015 more than fifty lawyers have been forced into exile simply because they were carrying out their profession with professionalism. To defend a person who is not approved by the government is a high risk in Burundi. The independence of the Burundi Bar Association has been under threat since 2014 when the president of the Bar was banned because of his opinions.
The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) filed a case with the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) on this event. What outcome do you expect?
,,The CAT has already expressed its deep concern about the acts of reprisal we faced. Through the upcoming recommendation we hope to get the justice we missed in our country.”
You don’t sound hopeful about the situation..
,,The authorities are using the judiciary to deliver a political criminal judgement against me and my fellow human rights activists. But defending the rule of law is not a crime. History will judge. No political judgement can stop me fighting against impunity in my country.”
© Article: Johan van Uffelen
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lawyers for Lawyers.
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