BUJUMBURA, Burundi – Three teenage schoolgirls in Burundi have been remanded as they await trial for scribbling on a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza in textbooks, activists said Thursday.
Burundian intelligence agents, in early March, arrested secondary school students in Muramvya province in central-western Burundi accusing them of insulting the head of state.
The girls, aged 15, 16 and 17, could face up to five years in prison for insulting the head of state if found guilty.
Judges said the three girls should be prosecuted for “contempt of the head of state”, and ordered them to a juvenile section of a prison in the north of Burundi at Ngozi to await trial, said FENADEB, a civil society umbrella group of 48 organisations.
The trio has been in custody since March 12, when they were arrested with three other schoolgirls and a 13-year old boy.
The boy was released immediately because he was below the age of criminal responsibility, while the three girls were released without charge.
The girls are accused of defacing photographs of Nkurunziza in five textbooks belonging to their school, but teachers pointed out that the books are shared among all the pupils as there are not enough for everyone to have their own.
A judicial source, who called the case “very sensitive” and revealed it was overseen directly by the Attorney General, Sylvestre Nyanwi, reported that the girls arrived at the prison on Wednesday afternoon.
It was not clear when they might face trial, but the father of one of the girls said they were already “too scared to eat”, according to Lewis Mudge, from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Many have taken to social media to air out their anger over the arrest of the school girls.
The Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth was no different as he voiced his dissatisfaction of the act.
“What kind of “strong man” is so weak that his government arrests seven schoolchildren for allegedly having scribbled on the president’s photo in their school books? A weak on like Burundi’s President Nkurunziza” read a tweet from the envoy’s twitter account.
What kind of “strong man” is so weak that his government arrests seven schoolchildren for allegedly having scribbled on the president’s photo in their school books? A weak on like Burundi’s Pres Nkurunziza. https://t.co/ZQk9nYmGnJ pic.twitter.com/wOzqHofATI
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) March 21, 2019
In 2016, several schoolchildren were handed prison sentences for similar scribbles on the president’s face, and hundreds of pupils expelled, sparking an international outcry.
Burundi has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza in April 2015 sought a fiercely-contested third term in office.
The violence has claimed at least 1,200 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people between April 2015 and May 2017, according to estimates by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an investigation.
This comes barely a month since the United Nations shut down its operational office in Burundi after the government subsequently threatening to prosecute the rights council’s team of investigators after it voted to renew investigation in human rights violation in the Great lake region nation.
In verbal exchange, the Burundi government accused the rights body chairman of “selling” Africans like in the era of slavery, a comment that outraged Bachelet.