NAIROBI - Burundi's government recently proposed constitutional changes that would, among other things, allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office beyond 2020. Civil society groups say the government is arresting opponents of those changes in advance of an upcoming referendum.
Officially, Burundi's government has banned anyone from campaigning for or against the proposed changes to the constitution. But civil society groups accuse the government of targeting those suspected to urging voters to reject the changes.
The head of Burundi’s Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society, Vital Nshirimana, says people cannot make free choices.
“So far dozens of people, about 60 people were arrested in many sides of the country, and this is one of the signs that referendum will not be fair since those campaigning against are arrested, while those campaigning for 'yes' are not arrested,” said Nshirimana.
The government says the changes are aimed at strengthening and advancing the country’s laws after more than two years of political violence.
The violence was triggered in April 2015 when President Nkurunziza announced he would run for a controversial third term. Opponents said he was violating constitutional term limits and the peace deal that ended Burundi's civil war.
Now, critics believe Nkurunziza is maneuvering to stay in power beyond the end of his current term in 2020.
Hamissi Sultan represents opposition party FNL, which is against the constitutional change. He was arrested on January 2nd.
“It is the prosecutor of Ruyigi Province who issued an arrest warrant against me. I was questioned, and I was accused of organizing and leading a group meeting aimed at sanitizing people to vote against the proposed constitutional change," said Sultan. "We were with friends having fun, and some of them were arrested too. We were accused of participating in an illegal meeting aimed at opposing the draft constitution.”
Sultan was released after three days without charge.
The president's deputy spokesman, Alain Diomede, says the government is educating its people on the proposed changes, but no one is allowed to advocate for passing or rejecting them.
“Right now the government is explaining to the electorate the content of the constitution," he said. "I mean some of the articles that are likely to change. There is no campaign to vote 'yes' or 'no', the campaign has not yet started. So when you teach people to vote 'no' and campaign has not started you understand that you are going against the law.”
Burundians will vote on the proposed changes in May.