- A resumption of summary trials and executions is imminent in Burundi, as the Bujumbura government has adopted a law reacting to the rise in violent crime. Human rights groups protest the law, which falls short of internationally recognised standards for fair trial.
The Burundian Council of Ministers on 16 November adopted the bill that shortens judicial procedures for perpetrators of violent crimes. The bill is now being submitted to the National Assembly for final approval.
The bill is presented as a response to rising violent crime in Burundi. It proposes that perpetrators of violent crimes, including murder, armed robbery and rape, caught in the act, be dealt with through a radically shortened judicial procedure, which according to human rights groups "falls short of internationally recognised standards for fair trial."
The summary proceedings proposed by the law mean that the whole procedure from arrest to execution would last less than 40 days - including retrial - and could be significantly shorter.
The emphasis on speed and the arbitrary cut-off points for police and judicial investigations as well as court proceedings, including a mere 24 hours in which to appeal against the High Court verdict, are raising questions about the fairness of such proceedings.
Executions are repeatedly mentioned both in the body of the draft law and its introduction. The latter states that "death sentences have increasingly not been carried out leading the death penalty to lose its intended deterrent and eliminating effect."
Article 25 of the current law remedies this situation by fixing the date of execution at no later than seven days from the announcement of the final verdict, unless clemency is granted."
The international human rights group Amnesty today called on the Burundian parliament to reject the bill. "This law makes a mockery of justice and the government's declared commitment to respecting human rights. We are calling on the National Assembly to reject the draft law and oppose all moves to resume executions," Amnesty said today.
- Although the law states that the right to defence will be guaranteed, it is impossible to accept that the best possible defence can be prepared in such circumstances, the group added. The timeframe also was limiting the ability of the courts to thoroughly and fully examine the evidence before them in order to reach a fair and just judgement.
Following discussion of the draft law by ministers on Tuesday, a number of modifications have reportedly been incorporated, including increasing the prison sentences applicable in rape cases and removing some references to executions. According to Amnesty, they do not however fundamentally change the law, nor address its flaws.
Several recent public statements by the President of Burundi and other senior government representatives expressing their wish to see criminals "severely punished" and for "examples to be made" were leaving "little room for doubt of the government's true intentions," the human rights group noted.
With government officials from the President downwards effectively demanding the resumption of executions, particularly in high profile cases, judges and prosecutors are likely to be subjected to intense political pressure to impose death sentences.
The government is undeniably faced with a serious problem of rising violent crime. According to Amnesty, however, current Burundian legislation already provides the necessary framework to bring to justice perpetrators of such crimes. The problem rather was that the justice system was "overburdened and under-resourced as well as weakened by corruption and political interference and decades of human rights abuses committed in virtual total impunity."
- Rather than offering society greater protection, the death penalty offers only further brutalisation, the group said in a statement. "The government appears to ignore the fact that violent crime has its origin in the politically motivated and widespread violence that has plagued Burundi for decades."
By resuming executions the death penalty, the government of Burundi would be going against the worldwide trend towards abolition. As of November 2004, 81 countries in the world, 10 of which are in Africa, have formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
A further 10 African countries have not carried out executions for the past 10 years or more and are therefore considered to have abolished the death penalty in practice. Over 450 people are currently under sentence of death in Burundi. Many were convicted after grossly unfair trials, and without the possibility to appeal.
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