Burundi has released three schoolgirls who were detained over accusation of scribbling on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s picture in textbooks which led to international outcry.
The three girls were the last still being held from a group of seven children arrested earlier February in Kirundo province, in Burundi’s northeast some 200 kilometers from the commercial capital Bujumbura.
All were accused of insulting Nkurunziza by defacing his image.
A regional court in Kirundo had decided last Wednesday to proceed with a full trial against the three.
But Aimée Kanyana, the Minister for Justice, told state broadcaster RTNB that the girls had been given provisional release. Future cases would result in prosecutions, she said.
She added: “We call on parents to strengthen the education of their children.
“We remind children that they have to respect authorities, that the age of criminal responsibility is 15.“Next time, justice will clamp down on such behaviours.”
The arrest of the schoolgirls resulted in an online campaign, with users using the social media hashtag #freeourgirls to post pictures of the President defaced with clown wigs, twirly moustaches, pointy ears and bloody fangs.
“With so many real crimes being committed in Burundi, it’s tragic that children are the ones being prosecuted for harmless scribbles,” Human Rights Watch Central Africa Director, Lewis Mudge, wrote.
“Members of the ruling party’s youth wing “have killed, arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten, raped, and intimidated real and perceived political opponents with impunity,” Mudge wrote last week.
“Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing school children for doodles.”
Burundi denies that its ruling party carries out systematic human rights violations.
Nkurunziza has been in power since 2005. His decision to stand for a third term in 2015 was called illegal by the opposition, triggering protests and a failed coup.
In 2016, 11 children were jailed on accusations of defacing photos of Nkurunziza in a textbook, and more than 300 students at a school in the capital’s Ruziba neighbourhood were expelled.
Early this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said Burundi had forced the UN to close its local human rights office after 23 years.
In 2016, Burundi stopped cooperating with the UN human rights office in Burundi after UN-commissioned report accused the government and its supporters of committing crimes against humanity.