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Report: Politically Motivated Killings, Arrests on Rise in Burundi

FILE - Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives for the celebrations to mark Burundi's 55th anniversary of independence at the Prince Louis Rwagasore stadium in Bujumbura, Burundi, July 1, 2017.

In Burundi more than 500 people have been killed in the past year, most of them by the ruling party youth wing and security forces, according to a recent report from a Burundian human rights group. The allegations have raised concern as the country heads toward a contentious referendum.

The report, titled "Do Not Play With Fire," documents the killings, disappearances, and torture in the hands of Burundi's security agencies and the ruling party's youth wing, the Imbonerakure.

According to the investigators, more than 500 people were killed in Burundi in 2017 and more than 10,000 are behind bars.

“All the cases we documented, those people died at the hands of military, police or Imbonerakure. Some of them were accused of practicing witchcraft, and some were killed on land-related issues,” says Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the head of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH).

The rights group notes all the allegations were fabricated and believe these people were killed because of their political affiliations.

Mbonimpa, who is living in exile, says the human rights situation in Burundi is getting worse.

“Since I began following prisoners’ rights, I’ve never seen more than 11,800 prisoners in Burundian prisons. It’s really sad and shameful. The prison can host only 4,050 individuals. They live in squalid conditions. Many of them are political prisoners. For us, we say that human rights violation now is on a very high level in Burundi,” he said.

Burundi's minister in charge of human rights, Martin Nivyabandi, refutes the allegations in the report.

“No country is a paradise in the world, people die, but saying that the situation got worse into 2017 while what we have in our reports shows improvements, it surprises us so much. It is what we always say people do not know how to separate politics and activism. They mix contesting the power and human rights actions. In all their reports they want to show security forces are involved in human rights violations,” he said.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 430,000 Burundians have fled the country since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term.

Most of the refugees cite human rights abuses, continued political uncertainty and humanitarian crises as the reason for fleeing.

In December, Burundi's government proposed constitutional changes that would, among other things, allow Nkurunziza to stay in office beyond 2020.

The referendum on the proposals takes place in May.