It's a dangerous time to be a powerful person in Burundi. On Friday, unidentified gunmen clothed in military fatigues shot and killed at least four people while attempting to assassinate the army's chief of staff on the streets of the capital Bujumbura. Assassins killed an opposition party spokesman in the capital on Monday, and a high-ranking military officer was gunned down in August.
The string of high-profile homicides in the landlocked East African nation follows months of unrest that came in the lead up to an election in July that saw President Pierre Nkurunziza re-elected a third term in office despite criticism from opposition groups and the international community due to a two-term limit outlined in the country's constitution. Even before recent wave of violence, observers raised concerns about what lies ahead for Burundi.
"The concern and the risk of mass atrocity crimes is still high in Burundi and these politically motivated assassinations do nothing more than push the country to the brink," Evan Cinq-Mars, a research analyst at Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, told VICE News in August. "These things can trigger events that can quickly spiral out of control."
The target of Friday's shooting was General Prime Niyongabo, but he survived the attack and is said to be back at work. Three soldiers and a civilian died in the shootout, while two of the assailants were also reportedly killed, the military said during a press conference.
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Opposition party spokesman Patrice Gahungu was shot to death near his house in Bujumbura on Monday. General Adolphe Nshimirimana, the president's close ally and security advisor, was assassinated in on August 2, and human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was wounded a day later by unidentified assailants.
Amnesty International called the attack on Mbonimpa "deeply shocking," but it was just a continuation of the politically motivated violence that gripped the country ahead of the summer elections. Protests first spread through the streets of Bujumbura in April when Nkurunziza announced his plan to seek a third term in office.
'These things can trigger events that can quickly spiral out of control.'
Burundi's constitution is largely based on the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement hammered out in the early 2000s as the country's decade-long civil war came to a close. Both the constitution and the peace deal set a two-term limit for the office of president, but Nkurunziza and his supporters maintained he was eligible to run again because he was appointed to his first term in 2005 by parliament instead of running in a general election. Ultimately, the country's constitutional court sided with the president and cleared the way for him to run again.
The re-election campaign sparked clashes in the streets of Bujumbura between Nkurunziza's opponents and supporters, with violent crackdowns against demonstrators carried out by a police force that was largely loyal to the president. At least 70 people were killed in the clashes, and more than 100,000 Burundians fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other neighboring states.
Watch the VICE News dispatch Election Results and Post-Poll Violence: Burundi on the Brink:
Foreign leaders urged Nkurunziza to step down and the elections were delayed, but the president refused to budge. Voters finally went to the polls on July 21, and the incumbent claimed victory after securing 69 percent of the vote. Experts like Cinq-Mars stressed at the time that the weeks and months following the election would be a critical period to gauge the country's stability and monitor for a potential crackdown on political opponents. Already, there have been increased reports of repression against dissenters.
Since the unrest began in April, there has been a spike in the use of torture by Burundi's police and intelligence forces against individuals detained for participating in the demonstrations, according to a report released by Amnesty International based on testimony from victims. In one instance, security forces hit a detainee with iron bars, tied a container of sand to his testicles, and forced him to sit in battery acid.
The use of torture and other repressive tactics is not a new accusation against Burundi's intelligence service, which has a history of such acts dating back to the 2010 elections, according to Sarah Jackson, Amnesty's deputy regional director East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. Despite the historical context, Jackson said the situation appeared to be worsening.
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"This time [tactics] to extract confessions were basically devastating and disturbing," Jackson said, explaining detainees were not given lawyers and in some situations kept in custody without charges. "[It's] very concerning the way this trend has evolved and heightened in that period around the election."
Jackson called on the government to investigate torture claims and suspend officials found guilty in order to turn a new page in how Burundi's security forces treat people. The Nkurunziza administration has yet to adopt those measures.
"[The government] now has the opportunity to commit to investigations, and turn a new page in the way in which security forces treat people," Jackson said. "It's a really critical moment for the government to commit to the scale of investigation."
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