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Burundian Schoolchildren Arrested for Defacing President's Photo

FILE - A woman holds up a picture of Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza during a rally in Bujumbura on May 14, 2016, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the failed attempt of a government coup. Authorities in Burundi arrested 11 students last week for defacing a photo of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Authorities in Burundi arrested 11 students last week for defacing a photo of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Hundreds more were suspended from two other schools on similar charges.The United Nations Children's Fund says it is concerned with the situation, and is calling on Burundian authorities to respect the students' right to an education.

Burundi has undergone more than a year of turmoil since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, which his critics said was unconstitutional. Violence since then has killed an estimated 500 people and prompted more than a quarter-million to flee the country.

Tension spreading

Now the tension appears to be spilling into the country's high schools. Last week, 11 students in the central province of Muramvya were arrested for allegedly writing derogatory remarks on a photo of the president in a textbook.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac says the students, who attend three different schools, were held for questioning. He tells VOA that other students have reacted angrily to the government’s heavy-handed action.

“Now, we have got reliable sources, which report that other children of these schools took to the streets to protest the arrests of their classmates.And, during these protests, two children were injured by gunshots and one of these children is still receiving care.”

Bujumbura, Burundi
Bujumbura, Burundi

As of Wednesday, five of the arrested students remain in jail, while six under the age of 18 were temporarily freed by a judge on Tuesday.

More than 330 students at two schools near the capital Bujumbura were suspended for similar activities the last week in May. Those students have been invited to return but many have not gone back.

Children victimized

UNICEF says details surrounding these alarming events are murky. But, on all accounts, it says such action against children trying to pursue an education is totally unacceptable.

Boulierac says UNICEF is on the ground with other aid workers following up on the cases of the children who have been arrested and injured. The agency says these disturbing incidents are only the latest in which children in Burundi have been victimized since the outbreak of political violence in April 2015.

Since then, it reports 30 children have been killed and more than 300 arbitrarily arrested.It says many of these children have been imprisoned with adults, often in squalid conditions with little food and water.

UNICEF says it has assisted in the release from detention of 134 children who had been arbitrarily arrested on so-called crisis-related charges.