Burundian School Children Jailed as Political Dissidents

President Pierre Nkurunziza has faced protest since 2015. ( Wikimedia Commons )

President Pierre Nkurunziza has faced protest since 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

Seven children caught scribbling on a photo of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza have been classified as political dissidents, as insulting the head of state is illegal. According to an official statement, the children were subsequently arraigned before a prosecutor in the Northern Kirundo province. Police released one child who was below the age of criminal responsibility, while the other six were detained in the local jail for several days. On March 18, police officially charged three for the crime. A spokeswoman for the country’s Supreme Court confirmed that the case will continue to trial, and if found guilty, the children could face up to five years in prison.

Civil unrest has troubled the country since 2015, when President Nkurunziza announced that he would be seeking a third term. Nkurunziza muscled around constitutional limits by claiming he was entitled to two elected terms, in addition to his term appointed by Parliament in 2005. Prior to the vote, Burundian authorities brutally injured and killed street protesters and perceived opponents, the government crushed a coup, and thousands of protesters fled.

Nkurunziza won re-election in July 2015, despite historically low voter turnout and calls for a boycott of the election. A constitutional referendum in May 2018 extended presidential term limits, determining that Nkurunziza could potentially stay in power until 2034. Human rights groups and opposition leaders decried this decision, stating that the campaign period was marred with intimidation and political violence. The government banned several international and national free press institutions two weeks before the referendum.

Earlier in March, the UN was forced to shut down its Burundian Human Rights Office after operating for 23 years. The government forced the UN out in response to claims by the outgoing UN Rights Chief that Burundi is among the “most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times.” In 2017, Burundi became the first country in history to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time schoolchildren have been victimized by state crackdowns. In 2016, Burundian intelligence agents arrested 8 students for writing politicized phrases such as “No to the third term” on a photo of Nkurunziza in a textbook, amid the expulsion of over 300 children from their schools for similar offenses.