JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Burundi’s ruling party is using its feared youth militia to extort money from citizens for next year’s elections, Human Rights Watch asserted Friday.
The Imbonerakure youth militia, which the United Nations has blamed for killings, disappearances, torture and gang rape, has been extracting funds from the population of the East African nation, according to a report based on interviews with people across Burundi and those who have fled the country.
“These so-called voluntary contributions are being forced upon some of the most vulnerable people in the world. People have told us they literally starve themselves and their children in order to pay," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
Burundi's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The youth militia, often in collaboration with police and government officials, forces people to pay to use roads; to go to markets, water pumps and health clinics; and to obtain marriage, birth and death certificates, the report said. In some cases people who refuse are attacked.
The amounts demanded are usually about $1, a substantial burden for many in one of the world's poorest countries, Human Rights watch said. Many families said they were forced to pay multiple times.
The rights group said the extortions add to a climate of fear ahead of elections in May.
Burundi has been unstable since 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term. The election was marked by violence and allegations of rigging. More than 1,200 people have been killed amid a crackdown on the opposition. Nearly 350,000 of Burundi's 11 million people fled.
Nkurunziza has said he won't stand for re-election but many suspect he will after the constitution was changed to remove term limits.
The president said in July that contributions were no longer necessary but residents told Human Rights Watch the youth militia has continued forcing people to pay, although less often than before.