On March 26, 2010, Human Rights Watch and the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons published a report on mob justice in Burundi. Based on data collected from field research over seven months, the report finds that many citizens do not trust the state’s police force and have instead resorted to vigilantism to respond to crimes ranging from rape and murder to petty theft. In 2008, at least 88 people were killed or injured by mobs. In 2009, at least 74 suspected criminals were killed and 59 were injured by civilian mobs, with no repercussions by the police, and sometimes with implicit or explicit police consent.
From 1993 to 2009, Burundi was afflicted by a civil war that so weakened the infrastructure that many people stopped relying on the government or police for public safety. As Burundi began emerging from war between 2003 and 2005, then President Domitien Ndayizeye openly encouraged mob justice. Current President Pierre Nkurunziza has called on the public to stop resorting to mob justice; however, his national police spokesman Pierre Channel Ntarabaganyi has commended mobs using force to punish offenders.
In one of the poorest nations in the world, with half the population below the poverty line, the position of frustrated mobs is understandable. Citizens have commented that when they have relied on the police, suspected criminals are freed a few days after arrest. Moreover, considering that as of February 2010 no one in Burundi has been convicted for participating in a mob, people have few disincentives from resorting to mob justice.
However, the position of thieves desperate to support their families is also sympathetic. In August 2009, a 54-year-old HIV-positive man who was unable to work stole bananas from a neighbor’s field. When discovered, the man was caught by a mob, covered in dry grass, and burned to death. While mobs are desperate because thieves who steal their valuable property go unpunished by official forces, such extreme violence against equally sympathetic people is excessive and unjust.
Not even law enforcement is protected from the anger and frustration of mobs that are desperate for thieves and other criminals to face repercussions for their actions, due in part to the violent past of some members of the force, the tendency for police to be involved in criminal activity, and the perceived impunity policemen often enjoy. A significant portion (about one seventh) of former rebels from the civil war has also been integrated into the current army and police force. Since the post-conflict police force formed in 2005, 100 policemen have been imprisoned for violent offenses. While the violence in the police force is disturbing, the imprisonment of at least some officers demonstrates that there is not complete impunity within the system. However, many villagers have a different perception. In the province of Ruyigi, two policemen were stoned to death by a mob after they went into a village with weapons and two grenades in order to steal. In February 2008, six armed policemen, only two of whom were in uniform, were attacked and beaten when they entered a local village. Because of rising crime and a series of attempted robberies, the crowd assumed the men were robbers and two of the officers were beaten to death.
In March 2006, the United Nations released an interim report on the human rights situation in Burundi that concluded that Burundi was not meeting its obligations under the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement to reform its justice system and provide trained law enforcement with proper equipment. Burundi is also a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Articles 14 and 15 require all people to be informed of charges against them and have those charges investigated. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has further stated that to meet its ICCPR treaty obligation, a state must provide crime victims access to the legal system, even if the crime was committed by private parties. By allowing mobs to respond to crimes, instead of the police, the government is undermining the rule of law, and permitting repeated violations of the Burundi Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires all crimes to be openly investigated by the police. While Burundi’s poverty and transition from civil war have made it difficult for the government to create an effective law enforcement system, it is unacceptable for public officials to quietly allow civilian mobs to respond to criminal activity, denying suspects access to the legal system and denying them due process or the rule of law. The government must take active steps to remedy these issues and build the rule of law to Burundi.