The arrest and detention of Burundian journalist and opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije and a stalemate in the peace process between the ruling party and the rebel Forces nationales de libération (FNL) signal a possible return to instability, rights activists have warned.
"It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” Alison des Forges, senior Africa adviser for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on 5 November.
Sinduhije, leader of the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD) and founder of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and at least 30 other party members were arrested on 4 November for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, holding illegal MSD meetings and sending Tutsi youth to join rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war is raging.
Sinduhije denied the allegations. Speaking from his police cell, he told IRIN on 5 November: "The real reason behind my arrest is that they want to get me out of the  presidential race. The claim that I am threatening state security is false. I have no army, I have no militia group; I only want to bring new political ideas to the country and they [the government] are not used to this."
No formal charges have been laid against Sinduhije.
"According to Burundian law, they can hold me here [in detention] for 14 days; after that they will have to take me to prison and it could take months before I am charged in court," Sinduhije said. "I spent about two hours today [5 November] being interrogated by the police; I explained to them that I have nothing to hide; I only want to contribute, politically, to nation-building."
Des Forges said: "Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law."
Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights, she added.
HRW said Sinduhije's detention highlighted the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in the country, adding that the detentions follow "extensive harassment" of leaders of several parties opposed to the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD).
|Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law|
Sinduhije's MSD party is not yet registered for political activities. The police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, told HRW the MSD party was illegal and that "therefore the search and subsequent detentions were justified".
A ministerial ordinance issued in October requires political parties to obtain official authorisation for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as previously.
HRW said Burundi's Interior Minister Venant Kamana had declined to register MSD, claiming that a party cannot include "security" among its goals as security was the exclusive province of the state.
According to HRW, other parties have also faced harassment.
"Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD," the agency said. "Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorised meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Pierre Nkurunziza after they criticised his education policy during a private conversation."
Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Sinduhije said: "President Nkurunziza should understand that I am not his enemy; fighting in politics involves the competition of ideas, not brutality against citizens using state funds and resources."
Meanwhile, the peace process with the FNL is deadlocked over the group’s determination to keep the word “Palipehutu” as part of its full name, an ethnic reference prohibited by the constitution, and over its demands for a greater role in national decision-making.
According to Henri Boshoff of the Institute for Security Studies, these issues “militate against the speedy gathering-in of rebels in the assembly areas and the finalisation of the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programme”.
Regional mediators are due to travel to Burundi this week in an attempt to break the impasse.