Burundi releases schoolgirls accused of defacing President Nkurunziza’s image

FILE PHOTO: Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza claps after signing the new constitution at the Presidential Palace in Gitega Province, Burundi June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza at the Presidential Palace. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana/File Photo

Authorities in Burundi have released three schoolgirls who were arrested and detained for allegedly defacing a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza by scribbling on his image in textbooks following an international uproar.

The country’s minister for justice, Aimée Laurentine Kanyana, told the state broadcaster RTNB that the girls had been given provisional release but future cases would result in prosecutions.

“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,” the minister said.

A spokeswoman for the country’s Supreme Court had confirmed that the three girls were detained and a full trial would go on. They faced up to five years in prison if found guilty of the offence.

An online campaign using the social media hashtag #FreeOurGirls saw users post pictures of the president defaced in various ways using clown wigs, twirly moustaches, pointy ears and bloody fangs.

Human Rights Watch led the international calls to have the girls, aged 15,16 and 17, released with its Central Africa director, Lewis Mudge, urging the government to hold perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing school children for doodles.

The three girls were among seven children arrested for allegedly insulting the president earlier this month in Kirundo province, which is about 200 kilometres northeast of the capital Bujumbura.

Schoolchildren in Burundi have been on the receiving end of the law in recent years for such offences.