Burundi’s government has been accused of launching a campaign of repression against independent media, the day after loyalist troops defeated an attempted coup against the central African nation’s president.
Seventeen alleged coup plotters, including a former defence minister and two top police commissioners, appeared before a state prosecutor on Saturday to face accusations of attempting to overthrow the state. Their lawyer alleged they had been severely beaten.
In a sign of ongoing tensions, European aid groups evacuated their foreign staff, a diplomat said. The capital, Bujumbura, was largely calm on Saturday, according to AFP correspondents.
On Friday, President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority, thanked loyalist forces for crushing the coup attempt and warned demonstrators to end weeks of protests against his controversial bid to seek a third consecutive term in office.
After two days of heavy battles, the attempt by high-ranking security and defence figures to seize power ended in failure as its leaders admitted defeat and were arrested or forced to flee.
The chief coup plotter, General Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, was said to be on the run.
Rights activist Innocent Muhozi, the head of the Burundian Press Observatory, said journalists were being subjected to threats of arrest and even death. The head of the prominent independent radio station RPA, Bob Rugurika, had been forced to flee the country, Muhozi said.
“They want to break the journalists’ morale. There is harassment, phone calls, threats, blacklists,” Muhozi said. “Some have gone into exile, others are in hiding.”
RPA was among several of Burundi’s main independent radio stations that came under attack and were put off the air by loyalist troops during the coup attempt, which began on Wednesday and ended on Friday morning when an attempt by the plotters to seize the state broadcaster failed.
Niyombare used an independent radio station to announce his bid to overthrow Nkurunziza. Independent media have been accused of stirring weeks of protests against the president that have left about 25 people dead.
Authorities said 12 rebel soldiers died in the fighting, although there was no independent confirmation of casualty figures.
Among the 17 alleged coup plotters who appeared before a prosecutor in the capital on Saturday were General Cyrille Ndayirukiye and top police commissioners Zenon Ndabaneze and Hermenegilde Nimenya.
“They were seriously beaten, in particular General Ndayirukiye,” said lawyer Anatole Miburo, adding that the general had been forced to record a confession for broadcast on state media.
Opposition and rights groups insist that it is unconstitutional for Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2005, to run for more than two terms. He has been accused of intimidating opponents and failing to lift the fortunes of the impoverished country.
Nkurunziza, however, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. He is a born-again Christian and believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.
In his speech broadcast by state media, in which he thanked loyal security forces, Nkurunziza called for an immediate end to what he called “uprisings” against his third term.
“It is obvious that the current upheavals are related to the group that wanted to overthrow government institutions,” he said.
The government has banned the demonstrations since they began weeks ago, describing the protesters as “terrorists”.
Some activists said protests would restart on Monday, although other residents said they were afraid for their lives if civil unrest on the streets began again. The militia-like youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party was particularly feared.
“We are all scared,” said Ghislaine, a 28-year-old housewife. “They destroyed the radio station so we have no idea what is happening and we’re afraid they’ll come at night and kill us.”
In the city centre, some residents were out shopping to replenish their basic supplies to last them through any more unrest.
“It’s not the first time there’s a crisis here,” said Alexandre, a 56-year-old bank worker. “People are used to stocking up.”
The coup attempt raised fears of a return to widespread violence in the country, which is still recovering from a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and left hundreds of thousands of people dead. More than 100,000 Burundians fled the violence to neighbouring nations, the United Nations said on Friday.
Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters