A group of human rights NGOs on Tuesday urged the Burundian authorities to release five human rights defenders arrested on charges of rebellion and undermining state security "immediately" and to stop "intimidating" civil society.
The activists were arrested by the intelligence services on 14 February as four of them were about to fly to Uganda from the economic capital Bujumbura, and subsequently charged with these offences.
"The Burundian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release the five human rights defenders arbitrarily arrested" and "drop the baseless charges against them," Amnesty International, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative and Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in a statement, denouncing these proceedings as "intimidating other activists.
These arrests and charges "testify to a deterioration" of the situation of "independent civil society in Burundi", said Clementine de Montjoye, researcher in the Africa division of HRW.
Among the four activists arrested at the airport was Sonia Ndikumasabo, president of the Association of Women Lawyers of Burundi and former vice-president of the independent National Human Rights Commission.
The fifth detainee, Prosper Runyange, a member of the Association for Peace and the Promotion of Human Rights (APDH), was arrested in Ngozi (north).
The accusations "seem to be based solely on their link with a foreign international organisation and the funding they received from it", the NGOs note, without giving further details.
In February, the minister in charge of security, Martin Niterese, said "there is a high probability that there is a risk of financing terrorism through these funds".
Since his accession to power in 2020, Burundi's president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, has oscillated between signs of openness of the regime, which remains under the sway of powerful "generals", and firm control of power marked by human rights violations denounced by NGOs.
He succeeded Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in 2020, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 2005.
Burundi, landlocked in the Great Lakes region, is the poorest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, according to the World Bank, which estimates that 75% of its 12 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.