The release of the first 80 prisoners detained over their affiliation with a rebel group, the Parti pour la Liberation du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales de Libération (Palipehutu-FNL), has begun, following a decree issued by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza on 30 December 2008.
"The release is being organised in line with an agreement reached on 4 December 2008 after consultations between the movement and the government," Lazarre Nduwayo, government representative to the Joint Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JVMM), said. He said 247 prisoners would be released.
"It is a major move to be progressively implemented," André Ntahomvukiye, the Justice Minister, said.
"The released prisoners are only political prisoners and PoWs of the Palipehutu-FNL who were arrested before the ceasefire agreement of 7 September 2006 reached between the movement and the government," Brigadier General Lazarre Nduwayo said, adding that those convicted for other crimes would be punished, even if they were Palipehutu-FNL supporters.
The first 30 prisoners were released on 3 January from Mpimba Central jail, south of Bujumbura, the capital. On 5 January, 50 were released from Murembwe jail in Rumonge commune in the southern province of Bururi.
Released ex-combatants are sent to the Mubira assembly zone, in Mpanda commune of Bubanza province, which can host 5,000 people. "The site is ready with water facilities in place, to welcome the released prisoners," Nduwayo said.
Leaders of the Palipehutu-FNL welcomed the move, although Anatole Bacanamwo, principal adviser to the Palipehutu-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa, said the JVMM had identified 442 prisoners to be released, rather than 247. "The Justice Minister must reconsider this abnormality," Bacanamwo said.
Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, head of the Association Pour la Protection des Droits Humains, a rights group, also challenged the numbers, saying it expected the “release not of 247 but 452 prisoners”, referring to its own investigations in prisons.
Meanwhile, Rwasa was on 4 January supervising activities to sensitise his supporters to the need to change the movement’s name so that it does not bear an ethnic-branded denomination, as required by the constitution.
"We are glad of the way the consultations were carried out as supporters welcomed the explanations offered," the movement’s spokesman Pasteur Habimana said. He said in a bid to help boost the peace process, a meeting would be held in two weeks before the name of the party could be published.
The campaign was organised after fierce resistance by the leadership to a name change, which had brought the peace process to an impasse. The government had vowed it would not include the movement’s leaders in government if it kept 'Hutu', not accepted by the constitution. The government has promised the party 33 posts now that it has accepted the change.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions