Burundi government detains schoolgirls accused of scribbling over president’s picture

Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi President
Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi President

Burundian authorities have charged three schoolgirls accused of defacing a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza, spokesperson for the country’s Supreme Court, Agnès Bangiricenge, said on Thursday.

The three girls were among seven school children arrested last week in Kirundo province, in Burundi’s northeast and some 200 kilometres from the commercial capital Bujumbura.

Four others were subsequently released.

All were accused of insulting Mr Nkurunziza by scribbling over images of him printed in their school textbooks.

A regional court in Kirundo decided on Wednesday to detain the three further and proceed with a full trial, Ms Bangiricenge said.

They will await trial in a nearby prison and could face up to five years in jail on conviction, a judge said on condition of anonymity.

“It is true that scribbling (on the president’s picture) is a punishable offence under the Burundian law but since it was committed by teenagers I believe, this is a mitigating circumstance,” David Ninganza, a children’s rights defender working for local group SOGEPAE, said.

“Those school children are not engaged in any political fights and need no political posts. That’s why judges have to consider all those issues in their investigations.”

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School children have in the past been kicked out of school for similar offences, with some jailed and released.

In 2016, 11 children were jailed on accusations of defacing a photograph of Mr Nkurunziza in a school textbook.

In another incident in the same year, more than 300 students of a school in the capital’s Ruziba neighbourhood were sent home after being accused of defacing Mr Nkurunziza’s image.

Hundreds of Burundians have been killed in clashes with security forces and half a million have fled abroad since Mr Nkurunziza announced in 2015 he would run for a third term.

His opponents saw the rerun as a breach of the constitution and he won re-election.

Early this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said Burundi had forced the UN to shut its local human rights office after 23 years.

In 2016, Burundi suspended all cooperation with the UN human rights office in Burundi after a UN-commissioned report accused the Bujumbura government and its supporters of being responsible for crimes against humanity.

Ms Bachelet said there were still credible reports of serious human rights violations in Burundi, including arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, ill-treatment, arrests and detention, and curbs on freedom of association, expression and movement. (Reuters/NAN)

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