BUJUMBURA: Burundian opposition activist Jean-Claude Bikorimana pulls down his shirt to show a scar on his chest, the result, he says, of an attack by the ruling party’s youth wing.

The 26-year-old farmer said he was among some 50 supporters of opposition party the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) who were attacked by 150 “Imbonerakure” armed with clubs and stones as they were playing sports.

“They jumped on us,” Bikorimana recalled of the attack in Gihanga, a town in the hills southeast of the capital Bujumbura, in October last year.

Police arrested two of the Imbonerakure — the local name for the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party — but quickly released them without charge, he said. Six opposition activists, however, were imprisoned after the incident, he added.

Burundi’s opposition and rights groups say political violence has been increasing as the small central African country, which emerged from 13 years of civil war in 2006, gears up for presidential elections next year.

President Pierre Nkurunziza is widely expected to campaign for a third successive term in office and navigate past a two-term limit enshrined in the constitution.

Vital Nshimirimana, coordinator of the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society which groups about 200 local NGOs, said the Imbonerakure has emerged “as a third arm of the security forces alongside the army and the national police” — a claim the government fiercely denies.

Curfews have been imposed and opposition activists targeted with fines, arrests and sometimes fatal beatings to stop campaigning.

In March, authorities in Bujumbura banned jogging in groups of two of more on the grounds that opposition parties were using them as an excuse to organise “uprisings”.

This month, the head of Burundi’s main human rights advocacy group Aprodeh, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, went on trial for “endangering state security” after alleging Imbonerakure members were being given paramilitary training and weapons in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

International concern

Burundi’s last elections in 2010 were boycotted by most opposition parties, with the exception of Nkurunziza’s ruling Hutu majority CNDD-FDD party and the main Tutsi party, Uprona.

Uprona pulled out of the governing coalition earlier this year, plunging the country into a political crisis and raising fears of renewed ethnic tensions.

Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana has called on all citizens “to participate in the noble task of ensuring security” — effectively giving government approval if the Imbonerakure takes justice into its own hands.

The government has also tried to block international agencies from speaking out over the deteriorating political climate.

Human Rights Watch was blocked from publically launching a report detailing a wave of killings the group alleges were carried out by state agents and ruling party members, including the Imbonerakure.

In June, UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic voiced “great concern” over the situation, saying politically motivated attacks by the youth group had more than doubled in the past year.

One UN official said there are an estimated 20,000 Imbonerakure members who are “active in matters of security” and could be used to target opposition supporters in the run-up to next year’s polls.

A United Nations official was also expelled in April after a confidential note reporting the distribution of weapons by the government to the Imbonerakure was leaked.

The government has fiercely denied the allegations, and Imbonerakure leader Denis Karera insists that the opposition are merely trying to “demonise” the group.

“These politicians are afraid of the Imbonerakure, because there are so many of us,” he said. “We are the pool, the nursery of the ruling party, the Burundi of tomorrow. A Imbonerakure member can of course commit a mistake, but do not generalise,” Karera added.—AFP

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2014

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