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(Nairobi, August 10, 2021) – Burundian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release lawyer, Tony Germain Nkina, who was sentenced to five years in prison in June 2021 in all likelihood because of his past human rights work, six international human rights groups said today.

The groups – Amnesty International, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative, DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Human Rights Watch, Protection International and TRIAL International – believe that the likely reason for Nkina’s arrest was his former affiliation with the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH), which was one of the leading human rights groups in Burundi until 2015.

The prosecution and imprisonment of Tony Germain Nkina is a worrying reminder that those who used to be part of Burundi’s once vibrant human rights movement are still at risk. The Burundian authorities should demonstrate their commitment to protecting human rights by immediately releasing Nkina and dropping all the charges against him. Burundi’s international partners should support the calls for his release.

Nkina, a lawyer in Kayanza province in northern Burundi, was arrested on October 13, 2020, in Kabarore commune, where he was visiting a client for his professional work. He was briefly detained by the intelligence service in Kayanza, then transferred to police detention, and finally to Ngozi prison, where he is currently detained.

October 2020 was a tense period in Kayanza following attacks by an armed group in the previous weeks, with several people killed or abducted. Nkina happened to visit Kabarore, one of the areas affected, soon after these attacks. The authorities accused him of collaborating with the armed opposition group RED-Tabara (Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi), which they hold responsible for the attacks, and charged him with endangering internal state security.

On June 15, 2021, the court of Kayanza convicted Nkina of “collaboration with rebels who attacked Burundi,” and sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of one million Burundian francs (approximately US$ 500). His client, Apollinaire Hitimana, whom he had been advising on a land dispute and was arrested with him, was found guilty of complicity in the same offence and sentenced to two and a half years and a fine of 500,000 Burundian francs. An appeal hearing is scheduled for August 12, at the Ngozi court of appeal.

Nkina was APRODH’s representative in Kayanza until the government suspended the organization in 2015 as part of a larger crackdown on civil society over opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza running for a controversial third term. He has not worked for APRODH or any other Burundian civil society organization for the past six years. He is a well-known lawyer in Kayanza and a member of the Gitega bar. However, authorities in Kayanza may still associate him with APRODH, especially as he was riding his former APRODH motorcycle on the day of his arrest.

The prosecution accused him, among other things, of travelling to Rwanda to give information to APRODH’s president, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who lives in Europe, as well as to RED-Tabara. The prosecution has not presented any evidence to substantiate these allegations.

Nkina is the only known former staff member of a human rights organization imprisoned in Burundi at the present time. Two other human rights defenders were released earlier in 2021.

For further details about the government repression of human rights activists, please see below.

Background

APRODH was one of Burundi’s most active and best-known human rights organizations. Mbonimpa narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2015 with life-threatening injuries. Mbonimpa’s son and his son-in-law were both shot dead in 2015.

APRODH’s representative in Gitega province, Nestor Nibitanga, was arrested in 2017 and sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison on charges similar to those brought against Nkina. He was released in April as part of President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s pardon of more than 5,000 prisoners.

Another human rights defender, Germain Rukuki, was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 32 years in prison in 2018 on trumped-up charges related to his human rights work. His sentence was confirmed by the appeal court in 2019, but the appeal court’s decision was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. The appeal court reduced his sentence to one year in June 2021. He was released the same month.

Burundi’s civil society and media organizations were among the first targets of the government repression in 2015. The government suspended or closed most independent human rights organizations and media outlets and drove them into exile. Despite some overtures by President Ndayishimiye towards the media in 2021, the Burundian government continues to view human rights work with suspicion, and severe restrictions on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, remain in place.

Most independent human rights organizations have been unable to resume their activities in Burundi, especially as the Burundian authorities have issued arrest warrants for many of their leading activists in exile. Twelve human rights defenders and journalists were among a group of 34 people sentenced to life in prison in absentia in June 2020 on accusations of involvement in an attempted coup in May 2015; the Supreme Court judgment was not made public until February 2021. - Human Rights Watch

Burundi will take advantage of a World Bank financing mechanism to allow developing countries to purchase Covid vaccines collectively through Covax. Photo Ebrahim Hamid/AFP

 

Burundi, one of the last countries in the world to start inoculating its population against Covid-19, said it has agreed to take Covax vaccines -- but with a condition.

The change of heart came a day after the IMF agreed in principle to a $78 million aid package to help Burundi deal with the fallout of the pandemic.

Health Minister Thaddee Ndikumana announced Wednesday that Burundi would accept Covax vaccines offered by the World Bank, but would refuse to sign a waiver he said was demanded by pharmaceutical companies.

Burundi along with Eritrea and North Korea are the only countries yet to start Covid-19 immunisation campaigns, after Tanzania began rolling out vaccinations on Wednesday.

Until now, the government had refused to be part of the Covax initiative, saying it did not want vaccines that were still "at the experimental stage". 

In a major about-turn last year, President Evariste Ndayishimiye declared the coronavirus the country's "biggest enemy".

Ndayishimiye and his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza, who died suddenly in June 2020 amid speculation he had contracted Covid, had previously downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, saying God had spared Burundi from its ravages.

But the country still only rarely gives data on coronavirus infections. The latest, issued on July 13, show a total of 5,723 cases and eight deaths.

"When the vaccines are here, any Burundian who wants to can go (and get a jab)," Ndikumana said.

Burundi will take advantage of a World Bank financing mechanism to allow developing countries to purchase Covid vaccines collectively through Covax.

But the minister insisted Burundi would not sign a form he said would commit the government to compensate victims of "undesirable" side effects from the jabs.

Details of the document and its demands were not known and it was not immediately clear if Burundi would not take the vaccines if it was obliged to sign the waiver.

Asked about the issue, Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said he had not seen the document and could not comment on the specifics, but that they were ready to assist in monitoring the vaccine rollout.

"We stand ready to work with Burundi to provide them with the technical assistance so that they can deploy the vaccines in all dimensions and not just look at the immunisation but also monitor the effects of the vaccines going forward," he said at a joint press conference with the World Health Organization's regional office for Africa.

The International Monetary Fund meanwhile said Tuesday it had agreed in principle -- subject to higher IMF approval -- to a $78 million credit facility to address the "economic and social impact" of the pandemic in Burundi.

The country's economy shrank by about one percent in 2020, the IMF said. - AFP/Daily Nation

Kenya become the first African country to roll out PrEP as a national program, in the public sector, in May, 2017. Photo via The Star
 

Sixty-five Kenyans have contracted HIV while consistently taking the preventive drugs called Prep, the Ministry of Health has said.

If taken as prescribed, the pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs provide 100 per cent protection against HIV, so it is difficult to prove why the infections happened. 

Nam-Aidsmap, a UK-based charity, in its analysis of the findings said some could have acquired HIV during a period of poor adherence or drug supply interruption. 

Kenya rolled out Prep as a national programme in the public sector in May 2017, becoming the first African country to do so. 

The last count done in Kenya in 2019 showed that 25,000 people were using Prep.

Medical experts say that there is no consistent data on how many people are using Prep, as a significant number takes it only to have risky and unprotected sex and then drop out. 

The 65 cases happened between 2017 and 2021, but there could be more people who have become infected and were not documented.

The findings were presented online last week at the 11th International Aids Society Conference on HIV Science.

The authors said most of the people who turned positive had drug resistance mutations to the Prep drugs Emtricitabine and Tenofovir.

The researchers were unsure if the resistance came as a result of taking Prep or it may in some cases have already been there in the HIV that people acquired.

This drug resistance in the people who became positive was higher than seen in the general population.

“The high frequency of HIV drug resistance in HIV-infected individuals on PrEP exceeds background levels,” the researchers say in the study, also conducted in Zimbabwe, Eswatini and South Africa.

Some 79 Prep users in South Africa also turned positive within the same period, 36 in Zimbabwe and 28 in Eswatini.

All the infections came from among an estimated 104,000 people taking Prep in the four countries since 2017.

Researchers from the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Ministry of Health's National Aids and STIs Control Programme were involved in the study.

Principal researcher Dr Urvi Parikh of Pittsburgh University said 35 per cent acquired HIV in the first three months on Prep, 40 per cent from three months to a year on it, and 18 per cent in people who had taken it for more than a year.

“But it does suggest that HIV infection on Prep is proving to be rare,” Nam-Aidsmap, a UK-based charity said in an analysis of the study.

The Prep users who turned positive were also tested for Prep drug levels in their blood, but this showed high drug levels, indicating good adherence.

“So some could have acquired HIV during a period of poor adherence or drug supply interruption, but when diagnosed had good adherence,” the Aidsmap analysis says.

The participants who provided a blood sample for analysis had a median age of 24 years, from a range of 16 to 67 years and 74 per cent were female.

Key populations included HIV serodiscordant couples (21 per cent), female sex workers (10 per cent), men who have sex with men (nine per cent), and transgender individuals (six per cent).

Prep failure is extremely rare if taken along with other prevention tools.

With hundreds of thousands of individuals using PrEP worldwide, only six cases have so far documented HIV infection among those with high adherence. - John Muchangi, The Star

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