Opposition lawmakers in Burundi on Thursday said 42 activists had been arrested for illegally contesting an upcoming referendum that could let President Pierre Nkurunziza extend his stay in office.
Those arrested “were held arbitrarily and have been imprisoned on the accusation of campaigning for a No vote,” Pierre-Celestin Ndikumana, who heads a coalition called Amizero y’Abarundi (“Hope of the Burundians”), said.
The plebiscite is about a planned change of the constitution that would enable Nukurunziza — in power since 2005 — to bid for two more seven-year terms after his present tenure expires in 2020.
The vote was initially scheduled for February this year but the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), citing technical problems, has postponed it to May.
The government, on December 12, began what it calls a “campaign of explanation” about the referendum.
But partisan campaigning for the vote, either in favour or against, is only being authorised in public during a period that starts two weeks before the vote.
The 42 have all been arrested since December 12, accused of breaching this rule.
But Ndikumana said “most of them were arrested simply because they are members of our party, (or) on mere suspicion.”
Burundi plunged into crisis in 2015 when Nkrunziza ran for a controversial third term that he went on to win.
Between 500 and 2,000 people died in the ensuing turmoil, according to varying tolls.
Opposition activists, many of them forced into exile by the troubles, have already denounced a project they say will be the death knell of the 2000 Arusha peace agreement, which ended a 13-year civil war in which more than 300,000 people were killed.