A group of human rights NGOs on Tuesday urged the Burundian authorities to release five human rights defenders arrested on charges of rebellion and undermining state security "immediately" and to stop "intimidating" civil society.
The activists were apprehended by the intelligence services on February 14 as four of them were about to board a flight from the economic capital Bujumbura to Uganda, and they were later charged with these offences.
"The Burundian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release the five human rights defenders arbitrarily arrested" and "drop the baseless charges against them," Amnesty International, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative and Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in a statement, denouncing these proceedings as "intimidating other activists.
These arrests and charges "testify to a deterioration" in the situation of "independent civil society in Burundi" according to Clementine de Montjoye, an HRW Africa researcher.
Sonia Ndikumasabo, president of the Association of Women Lawyers of Burundi and former vice-president of the independent National Human Rights Commission, was one of four activists detained at the airport.
Prosper Runyange, a member of the Association for the Promotion of Human Rights (APDH), was arrested as the fifth detainee in Ngozi (north).
The accusations "seem to be based solely on their link with a foreign international organisation and the funding they received from it" the NGOs say, without providing any further details.
In February, the minister in charge of security, Martin Niterese, said "there is a high probability that there is a risk of financing terrorism through these funds".
Burundi's president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, has been in office since 2020 and has alternated between showing signs of openness of the regime, which is still ruled by strong "generals" and firm control of power marked by human rights abuses reported by NGOs.
He succeeded Pierre Nkurunziza, who had ruled the nation with an iron fist since 2005 until he died in 2020.
According to the World Bank, Burundi, a landlocked nation in the Great Lakes region, is the poorest nation in the world in terms of GDP per person and 75% of its 12 million citizens are thought to live below the poverty line.
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