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Report alleges Burundian refugees were disappeared, tortured

November 30, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Saturday, May 23, 2015 file photo, refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension wait to board a UN ship, at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma. At least 18 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers have been forcibly disappeared from refugee camps in Tanzania over roughly the past year, with many being tortured at a police station in Tanzania and seven remain missing, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
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FILE - In this Saturday, May 23, 2015 file photo, refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension wait to board a UN ship, at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma. At least 18 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers have been forcibly disappeared from refugee camps in Tanzania over roughly the past year, with many being tortured at a police station in Tanzania and seven remain missing, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The men kicked down the door well before dawn. They shoved their way into the home of the Burundian refugee and put him in handcuffs, while asking why his wife was standing there crying.

Within minutes, they were gone. That day in March was the last time she saw her husband, the woman told The Associated Press. He became one of at least 18 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers who have forcibly disappeared from refugee camps in Tanzania over roughly the past year, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Many were tortured at a police station in Kibondo, Tanzania, the report says. Seven remain missing. Three were released after several weeks. Eight were handed over to authorities in Burundi and imprisoned “in abysmal conditions” without due process, indicating collaboration with Tanzania’s police and intelligence services, the report says, highlighting both the pressure on refugees to go home and alleged continuing repression under Burundi’s new president.

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Many of the more than 150,000 refugees in Tanzania fled deadly political turmoil in 2015 when Burundi was accused of cracking down on protests over late President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ultimately successful bid for another term. The U.N. human rights office reported more than 300 extrajudicial killings and was kicked out of the country. Burundi’s government has denied it targets its people.

Now, from prison, some of the recently abducted refugees describe being accused of involvement with unnamed armed groups and of seeking to cause trouble, with few details. In some cases, the refugees were told the police and intelligence officials had received information about them from Burundian authorities.

The refugees said Tanzanian police hung them from the ceiling by their handcuffs, “gave them electric shocks, rubbed their faces and genitals with chili and beat and whipped them,” the report says.

“We screamed as if we were crucified,” one refugee told the rights group, and said police demanded the equivalent of $430, money he didn’t have. When given the choice to remain detained or be turned over to Burundian authorities, he chose to return.

“It had never been a problem of this seriousness,” Human Rights Watch Africa’s director, Mausi Segun, said in an interview. “We don’t know what the trigger was” but the abductions began to occur around the time that Burundi’s latest election campaigns were heating up late last year, she said.

It is not clear whether the disappearances have continued since the election in May, she added.

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The eight refugees who agreed to return to Burundi “chose to go back because the pain was incredible” from the torture they received and because they couldn’t afford the fees being extorted from them, Segun said.

From prison, she said, some described having their faces covered and their hands bound and being driven to the border, then taken to Bujumbura and questioned again by national intelligence authorities.

“They were told they would be freed, but nothing happened,” Segun said.

The woman in Tanzania who described her husband’s disappearance told the AP she was threatened by local police with arrest when she tried to learn his fate. Then she went to the office of the U.N. refugee agency and was told they were monitoring the case.

Eventually, after getting nowhere, “I decided to no longer follow the case because I didn’t want my children to be orphans,” she said. “Until now, I don’t know where he is.”

The U.N. refugee agency told Human Rights Watch it has repeatedly expressed concern to Tanzanian authorities over the disappearances, and that the government said a “high-level investigation was underway.” The U.N. agency said it has heard no results.

It’s not clear whether Tanzania’s government at the highest levels is aware of what’s happening, Segun said. “There has been no response from the Tanzanians, which is not surprising.” The rights group in the past has documented pressure by Tanzanian authorities on refugees to go home.

Authorities in Burundi also have not responded to the allegations.

New President Evariste Ndayishimiye has urged the refugees in Tanzania to return. But Segun said his administration looks “more or less the same” as that of the late President Pierre Nkurunziza.

“The same people in office during those horrible years in Burundi remain in office,” Segun said, in part echoing the assessments of other human rights groups in recent months.