"Robben Mpimba Island" Chronicle
In 1997, Mandela visited Mpimba Central Prison in Bujumbura. Shocked and outraged by the sordid state of the facility, he chastised politicians gathered at the National Assembly in Kigobe for power-sharing negotiations in strong terms: "Are there in Burundi people who believe in God and dare lock up human beings in such horrendous conditions? »
They set out on such sunny Saturday morning of March 8, 2014, the International Women’s Day. The four moms appearing in the picture above, left their young children at home and one young College student hoped she would go back to her university studies after taking part in the walk. They all had decided to participate in a collective sport march, a sporting activity massively practiced by Burundians through the streets of the capital and across the country.
The groups of walkers to which they belonged were made of activists from the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD), one of Burundi opposition Parties. The MSD walkers converged from all districts of the capital and rallied in the city center. Very soon their march degenerated. It was perceived by police as a political demonstration. However, political demonstrations, even peaceful, are prohibited in Burundi even though the right to protest is enshrined in the Constitution.
In no time, the police attacked the MSD walkers and tried to disperse them. It arrested scores on the streets. Others will be arrested later at their Party headquarters where they had found refuge from the brutal repression.
Mayhem ensued. Violent clashes replete with tear gas. Police batons rained on protesters, hitting hard. According to witnesses, those were real war scenes.
The MSD activists were caught in a trap. During the clashes, two police officers were disarmed - an aggravating factor – and retained in the Headquarters of their Party. However, the two officers were treaty with humanity. They were given water to drink.
This dramatic incident will give Burundi justice the “overwhelming grounds” to organize a mass trial and convict the defendants with extremely harsh sentences and utterly out of proportion.
An excerpt from the Judgment states the following:
« The Tribunal
1 – Receives the legal suit filed by Prosecution and declares it partially founded,
2 – Rules that the offenses of rebellion, insults and violence against law enforcement officers, voluntary bodily harm and participation in an insurrectionary movement are proven as charged vis-à-vis ……. »
Then the Judgment delivers a list of 21 persons in the group with the heaviest sentences including Nadine and Gertrude. Apart from the two women, the rest are young men.
The Court, “therefore sentences them to life imprisonment.”
It is so decided!
Fortunately, the legal suit filed by Prosecution was deemed "partially founded" by the Court. What would have been the sentence if the case against the convicts had been proven wholly established? The young MSD protesters would probably been sentenced to life complete with torture and forced labour. They might even have escaped the fate of being tied to a rock for life or to wear iron chains to the end of their lives. Good heavens… Burundi justice can be magnanimous! Thank God, the death penalty was abolished in Burundi.
Although the figures provided by the Tribunal are fluctuating, 21 activists were sentenced to life imprisonment, 10 to twenty years and 13 to five years imprisonment with a fine of 50,000 Burundi francs. However, 22 militants were acquitted.
The final figure of those convicted as listed in the judgement delivered by the Court, a 79 page strong document, is not definitive as two prisoners, Odile and Furaha, have not yet been tried. Other male prisoners may be in the same situation.
The five women political prisoners, just like their fellow male colleagues, were thrown into the stench and promiscuity of “Robben Island Mpimba" after a trial conducted with exceptional speed. Indeed, the defendants appeared before the Court on March 21, 2014, i.e. exactly 13 days after they were arrested.
Yet, the Burundian Judges know quite well that the time of justice should not be the time for emotion, vengeance and the wrath of the Prince. In addition, justice is rendered on behalf of the people of Burundi. Now, what Burundian citizen can believe for one minute that these five women are a serious threat to the institutions and public security in Burundi? If these beautiful female faces on the photo epitomizing “quiet strength” can shake the Republic then this is really already on the ground.
However, Burundi police should be respected the same way it must respect back the people. Besides, the court's mission is to protect society. Therefore, if clear evidence exists proving that two police officers were disarmed and sequestered intentionally, the act is punishable but with extenuating circumstances.
Indeed, the MSD activists were suddenly and brutally assaulted by police. And the situation degenerated and escalated out of control of the police and indeed the march organizers. Justice must revisit the case and hear it again with serenity and fairness.
On November 23, 2014, a member of the "Citizen Mobilization Group", an informal group comprising Burundians from within and the Diaspora which was set up to advocate for the release of the five women met them. He emerged speechless from "Robben Island Mpimba". He was overwhelmed by emotion because the conditions of detention at Mpimba have not improved since Madiba.
« - Do you have the morale, he asked the group of five women?
- There are ups and downs, they respond.
The youngest, Nadine, a student, seems desperately sad.
- - You, you seem depressed, he asked her.
She smiles with shyness.
- This one is always depressed, comes in Gertrude, a mother sentenced to life imprisonment, too.
- Be brave, my dear Nadine! You shouldn’t be depressed. You must resist and not give in to the forces of evil that made you suffer such injustice.»
By the way, who are these women political prisoners on Robben Mpimba Island?
Odile is a mother of two children. She was tortured during her arrest. She has been in jail for 9 months without judgement. During the first trial, she was still at hospital because of injuries sustained during her arrest. She was badly beaten and had her kidneys damaged.
Recently, Odile received a housing eviction warrant for December 1, 2014 because she had not paid rent for 8 months. Her misery was compounded by her husband’s dismissal from work in retaliation for the political activism of his wife. He is currently unemployed.
Josiane is a widow and mother of six children, the last born is 5 years old. She was also beaten up on the day of her arrest. She was sentenced to five year imprisonment. The Prosecution has appealed against the sentence of 5 years.
Gertrude is a mother of 2 children; the last born is of 3 years old. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Furaha is a mother head of household. Her family is threatened with expulsion from house because of rent arrears. Her children, the youngest being 10 years old, no longer go to school for lack of school fees. She has been in jail for 9 months without judgement.
Nadine is a first year university student in the English Faculty. She was sentenced to life imprisonment at a time she was starting College.
«When I offered to bring her books, said the member of the Citizen Mobilization Group who visited the five women prisoners on Robben Mpimba Island, Nadine asked for, firstly, the biography of Mandela, A Long March to Freedom. This is book she is reading at the moment. She dreams of continuing her studies through distance learning and wishes to receive books and news magazines in English. »
These five women believed in the promise of democracy in Burundi. They thought they could exercise their constitutional right of political association, assembly and peaceful protest.
The Citizen Mobilization Group doesn’t forget the young men who were arrested and are detained under the same conditions. It believes, however, that by prioritizing the mobilization for the release of the five women, Burundi justice would be compelled to revise the suit for all the convicts.
Ultimately, the acquittal and release of all the convicts whose individual responsibility in the violence that followed the March 8, 2014 demonstration has not been proven with irrefutable evidence is a possible outcome. Because, the Court, at fair revision trial, will have to prove unquestionably the precise role played by each convict in the crimes they are charged with. For instance, among the convicts you find passers-by who looked on the clashed between police and the MSD militants, including a gardener and a bus tout.
In Burundi, the risk is great of having young people who suffer terrible injustices tempted to take up arms to get justice. But violence would be adding evil to evil in this country that has endured so many tragedies caused by cyclical civil wars that plague her history over the past 50 years. Non-violent resistance alone can liberate the country without sacrificing once again hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
In Burundi tradition, a mother is a sacred being and harming her is a curse. Thus, to unfairly lock up in jail mothers who were compelled to leave small children at home is a serious attempt to the sacredness of motherhood which is enshrined in the Burundi tradition. We must not let Furaha, Gertrude, Josiane, Odile and Nadine wallow in the stench, unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and interminable boredom that plague inmates at “Robben Island Mpimba."
Men and women of good will, in Burundi and across the world must take action and mobilize for their release. The tremendous mobilization for the release of the great human rights militant, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, gives hope to these five women. Their release is inescapable. “Freedom, Now!” will be the motto of the worldwide campaign for their liberation.
In subsequent issues, these courageous women will explain what they expected by participating in the demonstration on March 8, 2014.
Do they still hope that things can change in Burundi? If so what changes do they want in the first place?
In their struggle, do they believe that they personally embody the dream of other Burundians citizens?
Burundi has embarked on a chaotic electoral campaign. Political institutions will be renewed during 2015. Do they wish that political programmes of the competing parties include independent and fair justice, the fight against corruption, development to create jobs, security for people and property and finally the strengthening of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Burundi?
With their own words, they will describe their commitment in order for Burundians and friends of Burundi who read their moving story to understand the meaning of their peaceful struggle and also support them.
The immediate objectives of citizen mobilization
The Citizen Mobilization Group will soon launch an international campaign for the trial of the five women on appeal as soon as possible, at least for those who have been convicted namely Gertrude, Josiane and Nadine. The retrial must result in their acquittal and release.
The Citizen Mobilization Group demands already the immediate and unconditional release of Furaha and Odile who have languished in custody without trial and are as a result victims of arbitrary detention since periods of preventive detention prescribed the Code of Criminal Procedure have long elapsed.
On the other hand, the Group will soon launch an income generating project so that the five prisoners at “Robben Mpimba Island” be able to pay their children’s school fees, rentals for their families, food, daily expenses in prison, legal assistance cost for their lawyers and for the youngest Nadine, fees for university distance learning in English Studies. As a matter of urgency, the Group has already paid rent arrears to the tune of 2,200,000 Burundi francs.
Last but not least, for worldwide information, the “Robben Mpimba Island” Chronicle issues will be posted on the website www.isangi.info and tagged and followed on usual social networks: email@example.com
In the words of Albert Einstein, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The world, he would add, will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them by not doing anything."
[i] This chronicle was written from several testimonies and inputs from members of the Citizen Mobilization Group for the five political prisoners at « Robben Mpimba Island ».