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Burundi refugees pressured to return home, says rights group

NAIROBI — Thousands of Burundi refugees are under pressure to go home where they risk being killed, tortured or raped, an international human rights group said.

There is pervasive climate of fear in Burundi two years after Nkurunziza changed Burundi’s constitution and won a third term in office, which many opposed, said the rights group. More than 400,000 Burundians have fled the country fearing violence since April 2015 when Nkururunziza’s candidacy sparked weeks of protests and a failed coup.

Amnesty International said in a report that it interviewed 129 Burundi refugees in camps in Tanzania and Uganda, some of whom escaped persecution by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government as recently as May this year.

Sixteen people told Amnesty that they were tortured or ill-treated while in detention, among them a young man who said he was detained for a week in May in Kirundo Province, northern Burundi, the report said. He said he was held in a tiny unlit room with three others, repeatedly beaten with batons, and made to eat his meals in the toilet next door, the report said.

“They tortured us to make us confess that we worked with the rebels. One day they tortured us in an atrocious way. They took a bottle filled with sand and hung it from our testicles,” he told Amnesty International.

More Burundians continue to flee the country due to repression and insecurity despite government assurances of safety, said Amnesty’s Burundi researcher Rachel Nicholson.

“Let’s be clear, Burundi has not yet returned to normality and the government’s attempts to deny the horrific abuses still taking place within the country should not be given credence,” Nicholson said.

Despite this, there is mounting pressure on Burundian refugees to return to their home country, the report said. In January this year, Tanzania stopped automatically granting refugee status to Burundian asylum-seekers and Uganda followed suit in June. In July, Nkurunziza in an official visit to Tanzania called on the more than 240,000 refugees there to return home and his remarks were echoed by the Tanzanian president.

“Belonging to an opposition party, associating with opposition members, refusing to join to the ruling party or simply trying to leave the country is enough to create suspicion and the threat of arrest or worse,” Nicholson said about Burundi’s current political climate. “In these circumstances, it is imperative that Tanzania and Uganda continue to provide a safe haven for Burundian refugees in line with international law.”

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