Nkina, a lawyer who previously worked for a leading Burundian human rights organization, is one of the last people publicly associated with the country’s once thriving human rights movement and still in prison today. In 2020, while visiting a client in Kabarore commune, he was arrested and accused of working with armed groups. 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. Last year, the court of Kayanza convicted Nkina of “collaboration with rebels who attacked Burundi,” and sentenced him to five years in prison, despite no evidence being presented against him.
Thankfully, this conviction was overturned by the country’s Supreme Court earlier this month and the case was sent back to the appeal court of Ngozi for retrial. On December 20, that court acquitted him and his co-accused of all charges. It was a rare moment of judicial independence in Burundi.
Following the good news of his acquittal, Nkina was expecting to be released from prison, but the prosecutor did not sign his release order. Instead, the prosecutor plans to file an appeal of the Ngozi court’s judgement to the Supreme Court. Burundian law provides for the immediate release of a person who has been acquitted, regardless of an appeal. The authorities’ refusal to release him is therefore illegal and his continued detention makes a mockery of the entire judicial system.
President Évariste Ndayishimiye has pledged to break with the country’s violent past, deliver “peace and justice for all,” respect human rights, and reform the justice system. But Nkina’s arrest and conviction reinforce the message that those associated with Burundi’s once vibrant human rights movement remain at risk of persecution. Despite Ndayishimiye’s lofty promises for change – rhetoric that persuaded international partners to revoke financial and other sanctions – Burundi remains a country where prosecutors working on political cases can blatantly flout the law.
Nkina has been acquitted and the law should be followed, meaning he should be released immediately, even if the prosecutor pursues his appeal. Failing to release Nkina would be a worrying sign that the rule of law in Burundi remains seriously compromised, and that the president’s promises are hollow.