'Shocking' rise in Burundi torture cases: UN rights chief

Emmanuel Niyonkuru, Burundi's water, environment and planning minister, was killed shortly after midnight, according to a tweet sent by police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye (AFP Photo/) (CDS/AFP/File)

Geneva (AFP) - The UN human rights chief voiced alarm Monday at a sharp increase in the use of torture in violence-torn Burundi, with nearly 400 cases recorded so far this year.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said his team on the ground had registered "at least 345 cases of torture and ill-treatment" since January, and nearly 600 since tensions spiralled a year ago, warning the actual numbers were likely higher.

"These shocking figures are a clear indicator of the widespread and growing use of torture and ill-treatment by government security forces," Zeid said in a statement.

His comments came a day after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Burundi as "alarmingly precarious", and proposed three options for a new UN police mission there.

Burundi has been in turmoil since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans in April last year to run for a third term, which he went on to win.

Violence has left more than 400 people dead and driven more than 250,000 people across the border.

Zeid said most of the torture in the country was taking place in facilities run by Burundi's intelligence service, but also pointed the finger at the national police and, to a lesser extent, the army.

"Perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment have so far enjoyed total impunity," he warned.

A recent visit by UN rights officials to detention centres run by the national intelligence service in the capital Bujumbura found that 30 of the 67 detainees visited showed physical signs of torture.

Many had "fresh wounds on their bodies. Some were unable to walk without assistance after being beaten with belts, iron rods or sharp objects, or burned," Zeid said.

He said he was "profoundly disturbed by these terrible accounts and I urge the Burundian government, in the strongest terms possible, to put an immediate end to these unacceptable and illegal practices."

The UN rights chief also voiced deep concern over reports of people being held in secret detention centres across Burundi.

One man had told investigators how he had been arrested at the end of March by "unidentified armed individuals", and taken blindfolded to an unfinished building in an unknown location, where he witnessed his captors execute two other detainees before he escaped.

Zeid also said he has received "persistent reports of arrest, detention, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and assassination of certain members of the police and military by other government forces."

Members of the predominantly Tutsi former Burundian Armed Forces, known as ex-FAB, appeared to have been especially targeted, he said.