BURUNDI – Three Burundi schoolgirls arrested for allegedly doodling on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s photo have finally been released.
According to British Broadcasting Corporation, the girls were charged with “insulting the head of state” last Monday, March 25 and could face up to five years in prison.
Their lawyer Nyanzira Prosper said that the girls have been freed on bail until they appear in court.
Mr Prosper said their charges still stand and prosecutors will continue to investigate them.
“We appreciate the work of the court which looks to have acted with independence,” he said.
Addressing the allegations against them, Mr Prosper said there is “not any evidence of guilt” apart from the books being under their names.
He said he expects the girls, aged 15, 16 and 17, to go back to school in order to sit upcoming exams.
Quoting CNN on Wednesday, the suspects were still being held in detention two days after the country’s justice minister ordered their provisional release.
Their detention has provoked international condemnation of the Burundian government, whose track record for human rights has come under scrutiny.
They were arrested two weeks ago after the president’s image was defaced in textbooks. Four other students, arrested with them in Burundi’s northeast Kirundo province, were later released.
Since their arrest, a campaign to “#FreeOurGirls” has swept social media, with users sharing doctored images of Nkurunziza in solidarity with the girls.
The father of one of the detained girls told campaign group Human Rights Watch that they were too scared to eat.
HRW has urged the government to release the schoolgirls and concentrate on curbing abuses by the security forces.
“Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing schoolchildren for doodles,” the group’s Central Africa director, Lewis Mudge, said.
In a similar case in 2016, several schoolchildren were imprisoned and hundreds expelled for scribbling on images of the president’s face.
Burundi’s ruling party has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses.