Burundi protests as court clears president's third term bid

Esdras Ndikumana, Aymeric Vincenot
1 / 4

A protester throws stones at police during street battles in Bujumbura on May 4, 2015

A protester throws stones at police during street battles in Bujumbura on May 4, 2015 (AFP Photo/Aymeric Vincenot)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Protestors in Burundi dismissed a constitutional court ruling that cleared President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a controversial third term Tuesday, as the government offered to release activists if deadly demonstrations stopped.

The decision came hours after the court's vice-president refused to sign the ruling -- and fled the country instead.

But the six remaining judges ruled the president's bid to stand for another term "by direct universal suffrage for five years, is not contrary to the constitution of Burundi".

Protesters defied calls to end demonstrations, after more than a week of running battles in which at least 13 people have been killed, including police.

Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse told AFP that the court had come under "enormous pressure and even death threats" from senior figures, whom he refused to name, to rubberstamp the president's disputed candidature.

Top ruling party official Christian Nkurunziza said the court decision must "close the debate", while first Vice President Prosper Bazombanza pleaded for protests to end.

"To create a climate of appeasement, the government is willing to release the young people who were arrested," Bazombanza said.

He also offered to lift arrest warrants issued for key civil society leaders and reopen independent radio stations, provided that "protests and the insurrection stop".

But opposition leader Gabriel Rufyiri rejected the ruling by a "manipulated" court and the apparent olive branch offered by the government.

"We are ready to die for our rights," Rufyiri said. "We do not negotiate the rights guaranteed in the constitution, including the right to demonstrate."

- Judges got 'death threats' -

Nimpagaritse, the judge who fled, claimed that a majority of the court's seven judges believed it would be unconstitutional for Nkurunziza to stand again, but buckled under threats to sign the ruling.

The president, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, has come under intense international pressure to withdraw from the June 26 presidential poll.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Monday that he was "deeply concerned" about Nkurunziza's decision to stand again, which he said "flies directly in the face of the constitution".

Burundi, where a 13-year civil war between Tutsis and Hutus ended only in 2006, has been rocked by violent protests since the ruling CNDD-FDD party designated Nkurunziza to stand in what critics say is in defiance of the constitution and the Arusha accords that ended the war.

Nkurunziza's supporters say he is eligible to run again since his first term in office followed his election by parliament -- not directly by the people as the constitution specifies.

Scores of demonstrators have been wounded since protests began on April 26, and witnesses have said police apparently gave no warning before opening fire with live ammunition.

Nearly 600 people have also been arrested, according to police, with reports of many being beaten in custody.

The government linked a grenade attack that killed three people, including two police officers, in the early hours of Saturday to the opposition protests and branded the demonstrators "enemies of the state".

The country's powerful security forces appear divided over Nkurunziza's bid to hold onto power.

Neighbouring Rwanda has expressed its concern over the escalating violence that has caused 30,000 people to flee as refugees into surrounding countries.

"While we respect Burundi's sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent population as a regional and international responsibility," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement late Monday.