BUJUMBURA – Burundi on Tuesday, March 26 released three schoolgirls who were detained over accusations of scribbling on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s picture in textbooks.
Reuters reports that the three girls were the last still being held from a group of seven children arrested earlier this month in Kirundo province, in Burundi’s northeast some 200 kilometres from the commercial capital Bujumbura. All were accused of insulting Nkurunziza by defacing his image.
A regional court in Kirundo had decided last Wednesday 20 to proceed with a full trial against the three.
However, Aimée Laurentine Kanyana, the minister for justice, told state broadcaster RTNB that the girls had been given provisional release. Future cases would result in prosecutions, she said.
“We call on parents to strengthen the education of their children. We remind children that they have to respect authorities, that the age of criminal responsibility is 15,” she said. “Next time, the justice will clamp down on such behaviours.”
The arrests of the schoolgirls had resulted in an online campaign, with users using the social media hashtag #freeourgirls to post pictures of the president defaced with clown wigs, twirly moustaches, pointy ears and bloody fangs.
“With so many real crimes being committed in Burundi, it’s tragic that children are the ones being prosecuted for harmless scribbles,” Human Rights Watch Central Africa director Lewis Mudge wrote.
Members of the ruling party’s youth wing “have killed, arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten, raped, and intimidated real and perceived political opponents with impunity,” Mudge wrote last week. “Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing school children for doodles.”
Burundi denies that its ruling party carries out systematic human rights violations.
Nkurunziza has been in power since 2005. His decision to stand for a third term in 2015 was called illegal by the opposition, triggering protests and a failed coup.