NAIROBI — Members of a recently-suspended political party in Burundi could receive life sentences for a political protest that turned violent earlier this month. The case highlights growing political tensions in the country ahead of next year's presidential election.
On March 8, demonstrators from the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) took to the streets of Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, to protest against what they saw as the government's restrictions on political freedoms.
They were met by riot police who fired tear gas to break up the protest. More than a dozen opposition members were injured during clashes that followed, while two policemen were briefly held hostage at MSD headquarters.
Now, the party has been suspended for four months and 46 party members are on trial, facing the possibility of life in prison on charges of insurrection, violence against police and rebellion. Another 22 are facing lesser charges.
The president of the Forum for Strengthening Civil Society in Burundi, Vital Nshimirimana, says the March 8 crackdown was politically guided.
“The police showed that it is not neutral. It is not neutral in the sense that it is kind of led by some part of the ruling party,” he said.
Presidential adviser Gervais Abayehu denies there is any deliberate crackdown on the opposition. He tells VOA the protesters violated an order by the interior minister that banned political rallies on that particular day, which coincided with a public celebration of International Women's Day.
“Things in this country are such that if you do not go by the law, if you do not respect what the interior minister is saying or the government is saying, it does not matter if you are in the opposition or whether you are in the ruling party, you have to face the full force of the law," he said.
The recent violence has grabbed the attention of the international community.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement after the clashes urging both sides to show restraint, while deploring the “growing restrictions on the freedom of expression, association and assembly" in Burundi.
The U.S. State Department condemned the government's use of “heavy-handed tactics” to break up the rally.
Abayehu says the overall political atmosphere is not as bad as it is made out to be, noting that the government has set up forums to discuss issues of concern among political parties.
He says the international community should not rely on information it gets from the opposition.
“If the international community rely on what is really the reality in the country, I think there is no reason, there is no cause for concern in the country. We see the country being stable, being peaceful,” he said.
Some activists believe the government is intentionally stifling the opposition in order to place the ruling party in a stronger position ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
The opposition boycotted the last vote in 2010 because of concerns of vote-rigging, giving an easy victory to President Pierre Nkurunziza.
Jean Claude Nkundwa, a Burundian peace activist living in the United States, has concerns about the next vote, given the current political conditions.
“There is a need of support of this election process which is coming to ensure it is fair and transparent. And it will not be fair and transparent if the democratic principles are not respected,” he said.
Nkundwa is a survivor of the ethnic conflict that took place in Burundi more than 20 years ago, along the same Hutu-Tutsi lines as the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Since then, political reforms helped promote reconciliation in the country. But now, Nkundwa says he fears Burundi is sliding backwards.
“It's getting dangerous because the frustration has always been the cause of war. If people feel the needs of justice are not met, people try to express themselves and they crackdown, then in the end there is [an] explosion,” he said.
Civil society groups are also concerned about constitutional changes proposed by the ruling party that would reduce the powers of the vice president, among other changes to the existing balance of power.
Activists have accused the ruling party of trying to change the laws to allow a third term for President Nkurunziza. The government, strongly denies the allegation and says the proposed changes will put the country more in line with the political systems of its East African neighbors.