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The ICC Will Investigate Potential War Crimes in Burundi After a Year of Violence

An International Criminal Court prosecutor said she had seen reports of imprisonment, torture, and rape in Burundi over the last year as political tensions have devolved into violence.
Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The International Criminal Court (ICC) will now start to investigate allegations of imprisonment and violence in Burundi, which has been wracked by unrest since a political crisis erupted in the East African country a year ago.

Fatou Bensouda, a prosecutor at the international war crimes court, announced the decision on Monday, saying she had seen reports of imprisonment, torture, and rape as political tensions have devolved into violence.


"At least 3,400 people have been arrested and over 230,000 Burundians forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries," she said in a statement.

Preliminary examinations at the court, based mainly on publicly available information, can last months or years before leading to a possible full investigation. Only then can criminal charges be brought against individuals suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Western powers and regional states fear Burundi could slide back into the ethnically charged conflict that characterized the landlocked country's decade-long civil war, which ended through a peace agreement in 2005.

Protests erupted in the capital city of Bujumbura in April 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a constitutionally tenuous third term in power. Critics argued this went against the two-term limit outlined in the constitution established through the 2005 peace accords that ended the war. Street demonstrations quickly turned violent as protesters clashed with both police and government supporters.

A court ruling ultimately determined that since the 52-year-old former rebel leader had been appointed to his first term, not democratically elected, thus making him eligible for to run again. Nkurunziza easily claimed victory in the July elections, but soon after the protests subsided and the situation instead turned to politically motivated killings by both sides. Human rights defenders, journalists, and government politicians all became targets of assassination attempts.


Related: Leaked UN Memo Shows There's No Plan to Prevent Genocide in Burundi

The office of the United Nations human rights commissioner estimates at least 430 people have been killed there since last April. At least three armed rebel groups have since emerged in the country.

Just this morning, gunmen shot and killed General Athanase Kararuza, a security advisor to the government, and his wife as they were taking their daughter to school. He is one of several high-ranking military generals to be targeted.

Over the weekend, a Burundian army officer who had been held in captivity by a rebel group was handed back to his unit, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Last week attackers armed with guns and grenades burst into a bar and opened fire, killing a woman and seriously wounding three other customers in the Bujumbura neighborhood of Ngagara.

About 250,000 people have fled since violence erupted, most to border camps in neighbouring Tanzania.

The ICC announcement is just the latest attempt by the international community to get involved. The United States has sanctioned members of each side of the crisis, while the United Nations Security Council visited the country earlier this year to determine the best options for peace. While actors decided against an African Union plan to send in troops, with or without Burundi's permission, the UN has discussed other options such as sending more human rights observers, as well as a police force.

Most recently, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, outlined three possible options for a police deployment to the small landlocked state as requested by the 15-member UN Security Council in a resolution unanimously adopted earlier this month. The options include a light footprint of 20 to 50 police personnel to assess the Burundi police, a monitoring presence of 228 police, or a protection and monitoring deployment of some 3,000 officers. Burundi's government is expected to allow just 20 unarmed experts into the country.

Watch: Violence and Protests on Polling Day: Burundi On The Brink (Dispatch 7):