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Burundi: Human Rights Watch urge investigation into Gitega central prison fire

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Burundian authorities have not conducted a "transparent, credible and impartial" investigation into the fire at the central prison in Gitega on December 7, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday, estimating that "several hundred prisoners" may have been killed or injured.

But according to an official report given by Burundian Vice President Prosper Bazombanza, 38 of the 1,500 inmates died and 69 others were injured in the fire, which broke out around 4:00 a.m. in the dilapidated and overcrowded prison in Burundi's political capital.

"More than a month after the tragedy (...), the government has failed to provide a full and truthful account of what happened and has not treated the family members of the deceased with dignity," said Lewis Mudge, the NGO's director for Central Africa, in a statement.

HRW calls on the Burundian authorities to "examine the circumstances in which it broke out and spread, the authorities' response and failure to evacuate prisoners, and to accurately count and identify the dead and injured."

"They should report their findings transparently - including the names of the dead and injured - and fairly prosecute anyone who may be held responsible, if necessary," the NGO added.

The fire surprised prisoners in their sleep. One prisoner interviewed by phone by HRW said that while many of his fellow prisoners had survived in his block, "in other blocks, they did not wake up in time and many died."

"The guards arrived at 06:00, but by then it was too late. Between 04:00 and 06:00 in the morning, there were only the prisoners and the fire," added this prisoner.

According to the authorities, the fire was caused by a short circuit. The vice-president had mentioned "the small DIY, the anarchic connections" made by the prisoners to "have a small plug to charge a phone, a small bulb for lighting".

The central prison of Gitega, the third largest in the country, built in 1926, had already been hit in August by a fire caused officially by a short circuit, without causing any casualties.

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