Burundi coup plotters trial
Burundian police officers outside the Court of Appeal in Gitega. Four lawyers face being disbarred for talking to the UN Committee Against Torture about the central African nation's record for politically-motivated torture Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/Reuters

United Nations (UN) human rights experts have raised concerned about the fate of four Burundian lawyers who are reportedly facing reprisals for having provided information to the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) for a special review of Burundi. Three of the lawyers were present at the 58th session of the CAT in Geneva, Switzerland, on 28 and 29 July when the committee of 10 independent experts examined the central African nation's record for politically-motivated torture, especially since a wave of political protests began in 2015.

It was handed a report by a coalition of Burundian NGOs describing the alarming situation and documenting numerous human rights violations, including torture, ill-treatment during arbitrary arrests and detention, alleged extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances of perceived members of the opposition by the ruling CNDD-FDD party's youth wing Imbonerakure.

The UN reported 651 cases of torture in Burundi between April 2015 and April 2016, but the number of people tortured by intelligence agents across the country is most likely much higher than the number of cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Lawyers facing punishment for their testimony

The four lawyers - Armel Niyongere, Lambert Nigarura, Dieudonné Bashirahishize and Vital Nshimirimana (See below: Who are the four lawyers facing reprisals?) - face disbarment as punishment for their testimony, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warned in a statement.

According to the body, a Burundian prosecutor asked the president of the Bujumbura Bar Council to strike the lawyers off the professional register on 29 June

According to the CAT, on 29 July, a Burundian prosecutor asked the president of the Bujumbura Bar Council to impose sanctions. These included striking the lawyers off the professional register, after the prosecutor alleged that they had committed several offences, including "involvement in an insurrectionist movement and an attempted coup".

Violence in Bujumbura, Burundi
Relatives view the body of one of the victims of the unrest that rocked the neighbourhood of Mutakura in Bujumbura in July 2015, when at least six people were killed during clashes with police Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

Government urged not to punish lawyers

In a letter to the Ambassador of Burundi to the UN, the CAT urged the Burundian government to provide "urgent reassurances" that no lawyer or activist would be subjected to any punishment for cooperating with the CAT or taking part in the special session of the panel last month.

Signed by Chair Jens Modvig and Rapporteur on Reprisals Alessio Bruni, the letter states that this concern is all the stronger given that the (prosecutor's) request came on the same day that the Burundian delegation, presided over by the Minister of Justice, indicated they would not be participating in the second session of dialogue with the Committee, citing the alternative report by Burundian civil society in particular as the reason."

Given the gravity of the cases detailed in their letter, Bujumbura has been asked to reply to CAT by 11 August. Members of the committee said they would remain available for any meeting with the Burundian ambassador before then.

The committee is due to publish its findings on Burundi on 12 August.

A party of the Convention against Torture since 1993, Burundi must respect the Article 13 of the Convention which states that complainants and witnesses should be protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of making a complaint or giving evidence.

Who are the four lawyers facing reprisals?

Armel Niyongere is a human rights defender and the President of ACAT (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture).

Vital Nshimirimana, a prominent rights activist, is the leader of FORSC (Burundi's Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society, Forum pour le Renforcement de la société civile au Burundi) - an umbrella organization representing 146 Burundian civil society associations. It was banned in Burundi in 2009 after weeks of intimidation, harassment, and threats against civil society activists working on issues of accountability as the country geared up for the 2010 presidential elections.

Lambert Nigarura, a prominent lawyer and activist, represented Bob Rugurika, director of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), a well-known Burundian radio journalist who was arrested last year after broadcasting an investigation into killings in Burundi.

Dieudonné Bashirahishize, an active member of the Burundi Bar Association, has worked to promote human rights and the principles of democracy in the East African Community (EAC), as the vice president of the East African Law Society.