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Youth wing of Burundi ruling party accused of gang rape
Human Rights Watch has issued a report accusing the youth wing of the ruling party to have gang-raped women and girls whose male relatives are suspected to be opposition activists. HRW said that 323 cases of rape or sexual assault, affecting 264 women and 59 girls, were reported from May to September 2015.
HRW interviewed more than 70 survivors who have fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania.
HRW researchers found out that women were being targeted by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza's ruling party.
The report said that some of them were tied up and raped at gun or knife point, as their families and children were nearby and forced to watch.
"These women had been harrassed before, by members of the Imbonerakure or other security services in their villages. After this pattern of harrassment, they would be visited one night by a gang of Imbonerakure or other security services and would be brutally raped by gangs of these people. They were often told during the rapes, 'We are raping you because your husband is a member of an opposition political party'. In other instances, women said that the perpetrators said to them 'Your husband is a rebel, is not here, so we're going to rape you instead'," Skye Wheeler, the women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, told RFI.
"It seems to be the case that these rapes are being perpetrated against women who are seen to have some kind of links to the opposition, usually through a male member of their family. So what we believe is that these rapes are part of a wider pattern of political oppression against the opposition in Burundi."
What's more, Wheeler said the women were too scared to seek help from the police.
"When I asked women if they had reported their rapes to the police, the look of incredulity on their faces sometimes was really shocking. I mean, they just looked at me like I was crazy, they told me 'how can I possibly report the rape to the police who are part of this crisis?' It was completly impossible for them," Wheeler said.
She said the fear was so great that in the majority of cases, women did not even report to hospitals or clinics for medical assistance, because they were again afraid that it would be found out that they were somehow connected with the opposition, often through their husbands, or that they were telling people that they had been raped by this group and that would lead to further problems for them.
Not unheard of in Burundi
According to Cara Jones, an indepedent researcher specializing in post-conflicts development in Africa's Great Lake region, this is not unheard of, and there's clearly been an increase in violence in Burundi in the past year. She said there have been reports of torture, mass killings and gang rapes for a while.
Besides, she said, what worried her was the fact that reports suggest the violence that took place in the run-up to last year's elections are still on going.
"The post-conflict violence is particularly fascinating in Burundi because it seems as though the ruling party has already won what it needed to win, so the need to use violence should have been diminished by the third term," Jones told RFI.
She said it seemed that these rapes, intimidations, and violence was in order to keep the party at the top, and prevent any serious opposition from coming into play, perhaps for the next election.
"To be frank, the level of gang rapes describe in the Human Rights report, coupled with the high profile assassination of Hasfa Mossi doesn't speak well to the future of Burundi in terms of looking to reduce the level of violence. I thinks that this level of violence will continue until the next election," Jones said.
She added that many journalists who live abroad in fear, as well as many higher profile citizens who have fled the country if they could. What seems clear, Jones said, is that the level of extra-judicial targeting is still very high despite the election being over.
"The youth wing that is associated with the ruling party, it seems from recent turns in the internal dynamics that the directives for the violence are coming from the top levels of the regime. This isn't just rogue soldiers deciding to rape or something like that, this seems to be a targeted and specific measure designed to reduce internal opposition within the country."
Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe declared that HRW had damaged its credibility through the "publication of falsehoods".
RFI tried to get a response from the Burundian government, which did not respond to the request.