In July 2017, the human rights defender Germain Rukuki was arrested in his home and later charged with “rebellion”, “threatening state security”, “attacking the authority of the State” and “participation in an insurrectionist movement”, although no conclusive evidence was ever presented to back the prosecution’s counts. Four years later, Germain Rukuki has been released from prison. In October 2021, four months after his judicial victory, Protection International is glad to finally sit down with the Burundian human rights defender Germain Rukuki now that he is safe in Belgium.
From his arrest in July 2017 to his release in June 2021, his story clearly illustrates how the hard work to release unfairly imprisoned defenders is part of an impressive and indispensable collective effort to protect human rights defenders.
Germain Rukukis’ release also sends a powerful reminder to all defenders in Burundi and across the African continent. For this reason, Protection International is taking advantage of Germain’s newfound freedom to interview him and reflect on the lessons learned.
In your experience, Germain, why is the right to defend human rights important? How is this right related to your story?
Defending human rights is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in several other documents. It is about the search for mutual respect, justice and peace in the world. States have obligations towards their peoples; they introduce legal texts and laws, but these are sometimes difficult to implement and enforce. It is therefore important that people go beyond individual interests and take up the cause of ensuring the respect of the law, freedoms and justice for all. In my case, I was arrested, persecuted and arbitrarily detained because of my human rights activism.
For those readers who are unaware, can you first briefly summarize your case, starting with the human rights work that you were doing before you were arrested and then explaining the Burundian government’s justifications behind your incarceration?
After joining Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture, ACAT Burundi in 2004, I spent five years volunteering in the observation and monitoring of Burundi’s prisons. From 2011 until the end of 2015, when ACAT was suspended, I was in charge of finance and administration; a position I later held within the project that the Association des juristes catholiques du Burundi (AJCB) was running in partnership with Protection International until the day I was arrested in 2017.
The Burundian government accused me of taking part in the assassination of soldiers, civilians and police officers; of attempting to undermine the authority of the State; of contributing to the destruction and degradation of public and private buildings; of joining an insurrectionary movement, of undermining the internal security of the State and of rebellion.
Can you now tell us a bit more about the trials themselves? What happened with the judiciary over these past few years, and would you say that your right to a fair trial was violated?
Indeed, my right to a fair trial has been violated. From the time of my arrest until the end of my detention, flagrant breaches of the law have always tarnishedmy case, such as an expressly biased interpretation of the law and procedural flaws throughout the judicial process.
My case was marked by an arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of Articles 110 and 111 paragraph 1 of the Burundian Code of Criminal Procedure, 15 of the internal regulations and 10 of the prison regime with the aim of slowing down my judicial proceedings and depriving me of visits from my family. During my detention, I was held in inhumane and degrading conditions. In spite of Articles 5 and 25 of the UDHR, of Burundi’s constitution and of the prison rules, stipulating that no one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, I was isolated for more than a week. I had to lay on the concrete, without a blanket, in an unfit and unventilated cell. According to Article 36 paragraph 2, the officer of the public prosecutor’s office has the obligation to inform the family of the person in custody of the purpose and place of custody. This right was also violated.
In violation of Articles 38 and 39 paragraph 3 of the Burundian Constitution, and Articles 10 and 14 of the UDHR, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the verdicts issued by the first and second instance sentenced me to 32 years in jail. They did so on the basis of unfounded and fabricated charges, based on offences that were not investigated, in violation of Article 73 of Burundi’s Code of Penal Procedure.
Three years later, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal and sent it back to the Court of Appeal to be tried again by a different court. The verdict was delivered on 4 June reducing the sentence from 32 years to one year and a fine of 50,000 Burundian Francs. According to the prison’s internal regulations in Article 127, paragraphs, 1 and 2, prisoners who have served their sentence or who have been acquitted are immediately released. Nevertheless, I was released on 30 June 2021, only after various coordinated advocacy actions led by various actors.
Speaking of your liberation, what is the extent to which your release from prison was a collective effort in terms of joint-advocacy actions, communications and finding political will? What do you know about what went right in this process?
My release was indeed a collective effort through different advocacy campaigns initiated by stakeholders. Calls for my release came from everywhere, which eventually forced the Burundian judiciary to read and say the law by reducing my sentence from 32 years to one year. My judicial file was devoid of incriminating elements and, as it was carefully monitored by many influential actors both in Burundi and internationally in order to pester the Government of Burundi, in a way.
I think that the most useful effort was the pressure exerted by national and international human rights organisations, the UN human rights mechanisms and the European Union during the dialogue for the renormalisation of bilateral relations with the government of Burundi. This, combined with a certain willingness by the new leaders to try to improve the country’s image. Yet, the road ahead is still long.
What are your hopes for how the international community can help in other cases of the unjust incarceration of human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists?
I am convinced that the current human rights situation is of great concern to many and that human rights violations or other abuses violating regional and international human rights instruments remain a major concern to the international community. For this reason, HRDs must be supported and encouraged, so that they can continue to ensure the respect of human rights in their respective countries, at the regional and international levels.
I am content with the existing protection mechanisms of the work of HRDs that contribute to support HRDs in distress. In particular, I refer to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, to the initiatives of the European Parliament in favour of the protection of HRDs in distress and to the solidarity and advocacy actions carried out by national and international organisations involved in the protection of human rights.
Given that there are many human rights defenders who are risking their safety and freedom when carrying out their work, what is your opinion on how we should be improving preventative protection? What can we learn about preventative protection from your case, specifically?
Advocacy for governments to respect their national, regional and international obligations in relation to the protection of human rights in general and HRDs is needed in order to improve the preventive protection of HRDs at risk, including through specific legislation on the work of HRDs.
This would encourage the different non-state actors to carry out awareness raising activities on the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in order to raise the authorities’ awareness of the important contribution of HRDs in building societies, as some governments sometimes consider them as political opponents, which is a risk for HRDs.
HRDs also need to be continuously strengthened in relation to their security and alert mechanisms against threats and security incidents as this has helped a lot in my case vis-à-vis my colleagues who had essential security knowledge. HRDs should also exchange knowledge with each other, especially those in similar, difficult situations to strengthen support for each other.
What is your advice for other human rights defenders in Burundi that are currently speaking out against injustices that they see in their communities?
To all HRDs who are currently denouncing injustices in their communities and who are in similar situations of injustice as I have experienced, I encourage them to remain committed in defending human rights because this is a noble cause. They therefore need to decide on adequate security strategies that are adapted to their respective contexts, as well as work in synergy with other HRDs at the regional and international level to benefit from support from the various human rights organisations when needed.