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EU parliament condemns rights crackdown in Burundi ahead of 2020 election

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The European parliament has passed a resolution condemning Burundi for restricting freedom of expression and violating human rights ahead of elections due in May this year.

FILE PHOTO: Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza waves to his supporters as he arrives for the promulgation of the new constitution at Bugendana commune in Gitega Province, Burundi June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana/File Photo

The resolution passed on Thursday states that EU lawmakers are concerned about the government’s “intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary arrest of journalists, human rights activists and members of the opposition”.

It says the media in the east African nation work in a “climate of fear”, creating conditions that are not conducive for credible elections.

Burundi government officials were not immediately reachable for comment on the resolution. The government has previously consistently denied violating human rights or restricting freedom of expression.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, who won a referendum last year that could allow him to stay in power until 2034, has said repeatedly that he will not seek a fourth term in office, but his ruling party has not named a candidate for the vote.

Hundreds of Burundians have been killed in clashes with security forces since 2015, when Nkurunziza won his third term in office. The opposition said his candidacy violated the terms of a peace deal that ended the east African nation’s civil war - but Nkurunziza disputed this.

The EU parliamentary resolution is non-binding, but it adds to a steady stream of international criticism.

U.N. investigators warned in a September report that Burundi was at risk of a new wave of atrocities as the election neared and that there was a climate of intimidation against anyone who did not show support for the ruling party.

Burundi’s Human Rights Minister Martin Nivyabandi told Reuters at the time that the government denied the allegations. “The content of the report doesn’t match the reality known within the country,” he said.

The EU resolution condemned the government’s decision to charge four Burundian journalists with undermining state security after their arrest in October while covering clashes between rebels and government forces in the north-west of the country.

In December, the public prosecutor asked for a 15-year sentence for the journalists.

“The journalists’ detention and trial comes amidst a suffocating atmosphere for Burundian journalists,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These are not conditions for free and fair elections.”

Reporting By Maggie Fick; Editing by Pravin Char