A lawyer representing two of the people accused of plotting a coup in Burundi, claims the authorities are using escape rumours to restrict the liberties of the army officials accused of attempting to overthrow the President Pierre Nkurunziza on 13 May.
Following weeks of protests sparked by Nkurunziza's decision to prolong his rule by a third term, the Burundian army led by General Godefroid Niyombare announced a coup on 13 May, but the coup leaders failed to secure outright support from the rest of military.
After hours of pitched battle between forces loyal to Nkurunziza and the supporters of the coup, the insurgents surrendered and Burundian forces arrested the leader of the failed coup on Friday, 15 May. The coup plotters' trial starts on Tuesday (9 June) with a preliminary hearing during which a judge will decide whether or not the prisoners should be released on bail.
Using rumours to clamp down on liberties
"Prison officials said the army officials could be preparing an escape mission. They have used that rumour to curb the coup leaders' liberties. Our fear is that they are using this false information to harm them, because the authorities might be scared some truths burst out in the open [during the trial]," lawyer Lambert Nsabimana told IBtimes UK.
While human rights activists and UN officials on Friday met the prison's director Emmanuel Niyonkuru, who Nsabimana says should be responsible for determining the conditions of prisoners' incarceration, the lawyer claims that the restrictions have come from the highest authorities.
"We know the people that have asked for these restrictions are the regional commissaire of police and high authorities within the police and the army. We know they came to the prison on Thursday and spent a lot of time with the director of the prison," Nsabimana said.
"Clearly, this injunction has come from elsewhere than the prison administration as it should be the case."
Coup plotters 'treated differently'
Since Thursday (4 June), deputy coup leader Général-Major Cyrille Ndayirukiye (a former Defense Minister), General Prime Ngowenubusa, Major Renovat Nduwayo and Major Etienne Ntahomvuyike have been isolated from the rest of the prisoners at the Gitega prison where they have been since 19 May and deprived of mobile phones, with which they should remain in touch with their lawyers.
Nsabimana claims the accused are not treated "like the other prisoners".
During the day, prisoners should be allowed to go in the prison's courtyard, where they can walk or do some sports. Only in the evenings and throughout the night are prisoners' access limited to their cells.
"However, [the coup plotters] have been separated from the others and put in a same cell. They are barely allowed to go out, even during the day now. The periods they are allowed to go and get some fresh air are much reduced. These conditions are not normal," Nsabimana said.
The lawyer also claims the prisoners' visitation time – habitually around 3 hours a day - have also been significantly brought down. On Friday, Ndayirukiye was not allowed any visit. The following day, however, a lawyer mandated by Nsabimana managed to visit the General.
"They are barely allowed any visits now. The fear is that, because they are isolated from others and because this is a very particular file, access to them is becoming more and more restrained."
Defense Minister to testify at trial
The General Ndayirukiye, however, is in "good spirits" as his lawyer says he assumes responsibility for certain decisions, which "were taken in conjunction with top officials within the army" including the former Minter of defense Pontien Gaciyubwenge, an ex-FAB Tutsi general, and his chief of staff Prime Niyongabo, a former Hutu rebel of the ruling party CNDD-FDD.
"They had all agreed that the country had reached an impasse, and because they were part of army it was their duty to do something to ensure that the Arusha Accords and Burundi's constitution were respected. The problem is that not everyone within the army followed them," Nsabimana said.
The coup plotters are expecting to call Gaciyubwenge and the current army chief of staff to testify at the trial.
The president sacked Gaciyubwenge on 17 May - four days after the coup. He was replaced by Emmanuel Ntahonvukiye, a lawyer who became the first civilian defence chief in 50 years.
The coup leader, Niyombare, who sources say has sought refuge elsewhere in the region, is still on the run, while police commissioner Zenon Ndabaneze, is incarcerated in Rutana.
Nsabimana told IBTimes UK that over the weekend (6-7 June) the authorities have arrested a couple of army officers accused of participating in the coup. The prisoners joined an estimated 25 or 26 soldiers directly implicated in the power grab.
(8 June, 4:58pm GMT) The President of the Supreme Court has told Nsabimana that the preliminary hearing scheduled to be held on Tuesday 9 June in Gitega has been postponed. The lawyer told IBTimes UK on Monday (8 June) afternoon that he had "not been told the reasons for this adjournment".