By Maggie Fick
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Burundi’s ruling party youth league is forcing citizens to donate money to fund next year’s election, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, as fears of abuses and renewed violence grow ahead of the vote.
For years, the Imbonerakure, the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing, have beat, tortured and executed activists, suspected opponents and journalists, according to United Nations investigations. The government dismisses those allegations, saying the group is purely political.
Human Right Watch said in its report that youth league members are extorting citizens for cash and food ranging in value from the equivalent of $1 to more than $500.
The young men often use violence and intimidation and block roads and access to services to collect funds, the report found.
One farmer said he fled Burundi in May after Imbonerakure members beat him. “They said, ‘If you want to live in peace, you have to pay for the elections,’”, the farmer was quoted in the report as saying.
“The rampant abuses committed by Imbonerakure members…in collecting the contributions demonstrates a frightening level of control over the population,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Minister Martin Nivyabandi dismissed the findings. He told Reuters: “No youth are being used to forcibly collect contributions from the population”.
Reuters spoke with six Burundians who said they paid under duress. “At first I refused, but given I was alone and defenceless, I paid and ran off,” said one man stopped by members manning a roadblock in the capital.
The central African nation is one of the world’s poorest, according to the World Bank. The government long relied on foreign aid, but many donors suspended budget support in the aftermath of the 2015 election, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third, disputed term in office.
To fund the 2020 vote, the government announced in 2017 it would collect “voluntary contributions” from citizens in several ways, including as deductions from civil servant and other public worker salaries.
The Imbonerakure were “emboldened by their contribution-collector role”, the report found.
The government formally suspended the practice of collecting elections contributions in July but Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports of Imbonerakure members collecting contributions for the vote and the party, Mudge said.
Hundreds of Burundians have died since the 2015 election crisis in clashes with security forces.
Elections are scheduled for May 2020. Nkurunziza won a referendum last year on term limits, enabling him to stay in office until 2034.
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)