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Burundi: Find Killers of Anti-Corruption Activist
Independent Inquiry and Prosecution Would Be Step Toward Accountability
BUJUMBURA - April 16 - The Burundian authorities should ensure a speedy, independent, and thorough investigation into the killing on April 9 of prominent anti-corruption activist Ernest Manirumva, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should lead to the prosecution of those suspected of responsibility for the murder.
In the early hours of April 9, 2009, unidentified assailants raided Manirumva's home and stabbed him to death. Police and colleagues told Human Rights Watch that files were strewn around his room, and that it appeared documents had been taken from his house. Manirumva was vice president of the Burundian civil society group Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques [OLUCOME]). Since January, Manirumva, a highly respected economist, had also been vice president of an official body that regulates public procurement.
"Manirumva's work threatened the interests of corrupt officials and businesspeople who prey on Burundian society," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Those responsible for his death should face justice. That would send a clear message that silencing critics is totally unacceptable in Burundi."
Manirumva's death sent shockwaves through Burundian civil society. Neighbors found his body just outside his home early last Thursday morning and notified police. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a bloodstained folder lay empty on his bed, suggesting that documents inside had been removed.
Assailants may have also forcibly entered Manirumva's office at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he worked as a consultant. A colleague who arrived at the Ministry at 8 a.m. on April 9 told Human Rights Watch that he found the door unlocked, though he could not confirm that anything had been taken. The colleague said that in the four months the two had shared the office, Manirumva had never left it unlocked at night. Two police officers and a civilian guard who were assigned to provide 24-hour security for the building were questioned by the police but denied that anyone entered the premises during the night of the killing.
Manirumva had been involved in sensitive work both at OLUCOME and the official public procurement regulation body. OLUCOME had recently investigated a case in which police officials allegedly received salaries for nonexistent "ghost" officers, as well as corruption in the private sector. The allocation of public procurement contracts in Burundi is also an area notorious for corruption.
The director of the National Police appointed a special commission to investigate the killing, and its members promptly began questioning neighbors and colleagues. However, the fact that police corruption figured among the recent cases studied by OLUCOME, and the claims that police officers responsible for security did not recall anyone entering Manirumva's Ministry of Agriculture office, raise concerns that a police commission may not be sufficiently independent. In addition, one OLUCOME member told Human Rights Watch that based on previous experience with special police commissions: "We don't have confidence in the police. They demonstrate good intentions, but a few days later, it's as if the [victim] is forgotten."
Human Rights Watch is joining several Burundian human rights activists in calling for a commission to investigate the killing that would have an independent chairperson and would include judicial officers as well as police representatives.
"The murder of an anti-corruption activist critical of police abuses demands an inquiry that is not under the exclusive control of the police," said Gagnon. "An independent inquiry is the only way to reach the truth and ensure justice for this horrible crime."
The incident is reminiscent of the 2001 killing of Dr. Kassy Manlan, the Ivoirian representative of the World Health Organization in Burundi, who was strangled and dumped in the lake after he uncovered embezzlement of EU funds intended to be used for malaria drugs. Six people, including four police officers, were convicted in 2005, but acquitted on appeal in July 2008. Though evidence obtained by the prosecutor at the time suggested involvement at the highest levels of government, no high-ranking officials were ever charged.
"Far too many killings and other human rights abuses in Burundi have been covered up, glossed over, or treated inadequately by the police and judicial system," said Gagnon. "The tragic death of Ernest Manirumva, whether or not state agents were involved, is a direct consequence of this impunity. The resulting chilling effect on civil society can only be remedied by a thorough and impartial investigation."
Background on harassment of OLUCOME
OLUCOME has long faced harassment, from both the government and other interested parties. According to OLUCOME, in May 2006, a group of 30 men broke into its offices and locked members inside, beating one of them. Police arrested two suspects for questioning, but no one was ever charged.
OLUCOME's president, Gabriel Rufyiri, has faced repeated harassment and imprisonment. Twice, in 2004 and 2005, he was arrested after denouncing state corruption and spent several days in jail before being released without charge. In August 2006, Rufyiri was arrested by the Prosecutor's Office on defamation charges after he published a report exposing corrupt business deals involving the National Police. He was released after four months in prison, when the state failed to prove that the information in the report was false.
In August 2008, the Prosecutor of Bujumbura summoned Rufyiri for questioning about an OLUCOME report that criticized aspects of the state budget. According to OLUCOME, Rufyiri and other members received telephone threats around that time, and Rufyiri's office was subject to surveillance by vehicles from the National Intelligence Service (Service Nationale du Renseignement).
In January 2009, an anonymous communiqué was delivered to OLUCOME offices and Rufyiri's home, warning members that they risked "elimination" if they continued researching politically sensitive cases, including the "Falcon" and "Interpetrol" scandals, two cases that implicate high-ranking members of government.