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Personal attacks follow Burundi human rights defender into exile in Uganda

Burundian activist, Chantal Mutamuriza. Image used with permission.

Women journalists, feminists, activists, and human rights defenders around the world are facing virtual harassment. In this series, global civil society alliance CIVICUS highlights the gendered nature of virtual harassment through the stories of women working to defend our democratic freedoms. These testimonies are published here through a partnership between CIVICUS and Global Voices.

A political crisis was triggered in Burundi in 2015 when former President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in office. During his tenure—which ended with his death shortly before the official close of his term in 2020—his government embarked on a systematic crackdown on media, journalists, civil society organizations and human rights defenders. Journalists have faced judicial harassment, while media outlets have to deal with stifling regulations and closures.

Under the regime of Nkurunziza's successor, President Évariste Ndayishimiye, journalists and rights defenders continue to face challenges. The arrest of political activists and the recent public announcement of the sentencing of 34 exiled people—including journalists and human rights defenders—to life imprisonment on charges of attempting a coup against the former president, illustrate the obstacles to free expression in the country. Activists such as Germain Rukuki remain in prison for their human rights work, while many others are in exile or still missing.

In light of these violations, in 2017 the United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s report on Burundi called for the International Criminal Court to open an investigation. However, the Burundian government rejected the report, saying it had “no credibility.” 

Chantal Mutamuriza is a feminist, human rights defender, and founder of the NGO, Light For All, an organization that tackles the issue of economic resilience and livelihoods among Burundian refugee women and children in Uganda. She had previously worked for high-level human rights organizations in Burundi, The Gambia, Geneva and Mali. She was targeted as part of a sexist smear campaign denigrating the UN commission’s findings.

This is Chantal Mutamuriza story:  

One day, I woke up to 2,000 tweets

It’s the mental stress.

You wake up, you use your telephone, you see tweets trying to delegitimize your work:

“UN scandal #ChantalMutamuriza maneater girlfriend.”

The harassment started in September 2017. The first UN Commission of Inquiry report on human rights abuses in Burundi was released, and it was hugely damning. Out of the blue, I was someone who was singled out as being involved.

The Burundian government said the report was biased because the head of the commission was involved in a relationship with a young Burundian woman—me. I can imagine the gossip: “She’s having an affair with the President of the Commission of Inquiry!”

They even said I wrote the report:

#Chantal Mutamuriza femme fatale girlfriend #Ouguergouz former employee #Ngasou is driving force of reports 🇧🇮@unhrcpr

In an attempt to discredit the commission’s findings, they built up a story. Given my employment history and my human rights activism in Burundi, I was a good catch.

Screenshot from Twitter.

They created photographs, putting me together with the President of the Commission. They searched my CV and LinkedIn profile. They even found out that I had worked for the African Commission, as a legal assistant to one member of the Commission of Inquiry, and for the African Union as a human rights observer. My boss at the time was Pierre Buyoya, a former president of Burundi. The ruling party didn’t like him because they thought he was involved in the attempted coup in 2015, and accused him of trying to seize power:

“She works with a former President who fermented the coup!” 

They said I was Buyoya’s “groupie,” a “charm commando” that he put into the arms of the President of the commission, so the UN could criminalize Burundi. 

I was in total shock and unable to think: I didn’t even meet the commissioners; I didn’t even meet the investigators; I did nothing at all.

Screenshot from Twitter.

The accusations started in a conversation on a radio station based in Brussels, considered at the time a sounding board of the ruling party. But as soon as the radio recording was broadcast, the tweets started to flow: one day, I had 2,000 tweets about me.

I was scared. Would action be taken against me?

The Burundian regime harasses human rights defenders, some women have even disappeared. Was someone following me? These people are ruthless, they can do anything. I was afraid to go out, I lost sleep. It went on for more than three weeks.

I felt powerless. Human rights organizations I contacted didn’t know what to do—they said it wasn’t physical, it was a mental threat. They said if we take action on this we will be amplifying the issue; they said as long as your physical security is assured, let’s keep it as it is. So how do you tackle this? At the time, with the help of friends, we wrote to the office of the President of the Commission on the Inquiry and posted the letter on social media; it was an attempt to cover myself against the unfounded accusations, as you never know what can happen in the future.

But I know if you retaliate or reply you just give them the floor to say more, so I mainly kept quiet. 

It was hard, really hard. Because it’s online you don’t know what to do and you don’t know exactly the person who is doing this. Some rights defenders from Burundi checked and the proxy owners of the Twitter account seemed to be affiliated to the ruling party and even to the office of the president. But how do you tackle this? What legal basis do you have for this? And how can you follow this up if you are being harassed by the government who is doing more serious things, like killing people? It’s hard to know. 

Some people said to me, “Why don’t you switch off the phone?” I said, “No, I need to build up evidence.” At least in 10, 20, or 30 years, if someone comes to me and says, “You were involved in an affair,” I can say, “No, I have evidence.” In Africa, very few countries have adopted laws to protect human rights defenders, so maybe this is something they can include, a clause on online security. 

To this day, when I dare to tweet something about Burundi, I immediately get a reply. Sometimes I think they have forgotten me but whenever I post something, they retaliate immediately. 

Women get attacked on a different level than men because of their gender and the best way to attack a woman is through her sexuality. Since 2015 in Burundi, some women human rights defenders have disappeared, while others have been killed. Most of us are now in exile.

Chantal Mutamuriza with women of the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda on March 8, 2020. Photo by Light For All, used with permission.

Burundian civil society used to be one of the most vibrant in Africa, and women were included. But now I feel they have been silenced. You add that to the harassment from the government, and it’s very difficult. 

I left Burundi a long time ago and I am hesitant to go back. As a women human rights defender maybe I wouldn’t be safe.

Now I am scared to go home. I cannot; I don’t know what will happen to me. This has had the biggest impact on me—not knowing if I will be safe or not. 

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