BUJUMBURA Burundi, locked in its worst political crisis since its civil war ended in 2005, has created a reconciliation commission that opposition parties say will shield the ruling party from accountability for past crimes.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party voted late on Thursday to launch the commission and let President Pierre Nkurunziza pick its members, who are to establish the truth about conflicts wracking Burundi since independence from Belgium in 1962.
Lawmakers from the CNDD-FDD's junior coalition partner parties, Uprona and Frodebu, boycotted the vote, a reflection of sharp differences over proposed constitutional changes they say will concentrate power in the ruling party's hands.
Concern over the constitutional changes - which could upset the volatile country's delicate ethnic power balance and allow Nkurunziza to run for a third term - prompted the United States and the United Nations to warn against them last week.
"It is clear that current leaders want to promote impunity," said Pacifique Nininahazwe, speaking at a Friday news conference on behalf of three hundred civil society groups.
"The truth and reconciliation committee that will be established will be biased and people of Burundi will never know truth about past crimes and reconciliation won't be achieved."
Justice Minister Pascal Barandagiye dismissed concerns about the commission's members. "They will be impartial and will work for the sake of justice and reconciliation," he told Reuters.
Under the terms of a political settlement signed in 2000, the reconciliation body is supposed to establish the truth about the conflicts afflicting Burundi since independence.
It is also supposed to ascertain the atrocities that were committed and identify the perpetrators and their victims.
Foes of Nkurunziza, an evangelical Christian popular among rural voters, view the changes he is promoting as a maneuver to consolidate Hutu power and abolish power-sharing requirements that have kept ethnic tensions in check since the civil war.
HUTUS AND TUTSIS
The changes would include a single powerful prime minister from the ruling party replacing two vice presidential posts shared between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups, a step opponents say would marginalize minorities.
Hutus make up 86 percent of the population but are now limited by law to 60 percent of official posts. The rest go to Tutsis, who make up 13 percent of the population. Twa pygmies account for the remaining one percent of the citizenry.
Human rights groups and the opposition want the truth and reconciliation commission to be made up of international and local experts selected independently. The new law only stipulates the president must select Burundian citizens.
"We urge the international community, United Nations to put pressure on President Nkurunziza so that he appoints a fair and impartial truth and reconciliation team," Nininahazwe said.
Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD party was created out of the main Hutu rebel group that was battling the Tutsi-led government prior to laying down of arms in 2003.
The United Nations mission in Burundi warned last week that violence could break out due to the crisis caused by the proposed changes to the constitution.
Government officials in Bujumbura accused the U.N. of spreading rumors and expelled the mission's senior security adviser, Paul Dobbie, accusing him of being behind the warning on possible outbreak of violence.
Burundi's political stand-off has raised the risk of another explosion in a volatile region already grappling with unrest in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Tom Heneghan)