The youth league of Burundi’s ruling party is forcing citizens to donate money to fund next year’s election, Human Rights Watch said, as fears of abuses and renewed violence grow.
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. Government dismisses the allegations, saying the group is political.
Human Right Watch said in a report youth league members are extorting citizens for cash and food from the equivalent of $1 to more than $500.
The young men use violence and intimidation, block roads and access to services to collect funds, the report found.
A 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 elections,’”, the farmer was quoted as saying in the report.
“Rampant abuses committed by Imbonerakure members collecting 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 I was alone and defenceless so I paid and ran off,” said on stopped at a roadblock in the capital.
To fund the 2020 vote, government announced in 2017 it would collect “voluntary contributions” from citizens, including deductions from civil servant and other public worker salaries.
The Imbonerakure were “emboldened by their contribution-collector role”, the report found.
Government formally suspended election contribution collections in July. Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports of Imbonerakure members collecting contributions for the vote and the party, Mudge said.
Elections are scheduled for May 2020. Nkurunziza won a referendum last year on term limits, enabling him to stay in office until 2034.