Burundi parliament votes overwhelmingly to leave International Criminal Court

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Burundi’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, a move no other country has taken despite complaints from Africa that the court disproportionately targets the continent.

Only two lawmakers voted in favor of staying under the jurisdiction of the Dutch-based ICC, while 94 voted against and 14 abstained.

Pro-government lawmaker Gabriel Ntisezerana said the court was “a political tool used by powers to remove whoever they want from power on the African continent”.

The bill to remove Burundi from the court’s jurisdiction still must be approved by the upper house of the legislature and then be signed by the president. That would trigger a withdrawal process lasting a year.

The ICC declined to comment on the vote, saying it had not yet been formally notified of the action. The U.S. State Department, however, said it was “concerned” by the country’s human rights situation, including the government effort to withdraw from the court.

“Such a move ... would isolate Burundi from its neighbors and the international community at a time when accountability, transparency and engaged dialogue are most needed,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

The ICC opened a preliminary investigation in April into Burundi, focusing on killings, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as enforced disappearances.

Burundi’s government was infuriated last month by a U.N. report that named officials accused of orchestrating the torture and killing political opponents.

Since then, Burundi has banned three U.N. investigators from its territory and condemned a U.N. decision to set up a commission of inquiry to probe the violence, which began last year after President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term in office.

Opponents said his candidacy violated the constitution and a peace agreement that ended a civil war in 2005. The opposition mostly boycotted the polls and Nkurunziza won a third term.

The ICC said in April that political violence had killed about 450 people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Opposition lawmaker Fabien Baciryanino favored staying under ICC jurisdiction, saying to withdraw was “no more, no less, than inciting the Burundian people to commit more crimes”.

Since it was set up under the 1998 Rome Statute, the court based in The Hague has focused on prosecuting such politically-motivated crimes as genocide and crimes against humanity.

Most of its investigations and indictments have been of Africans, stirring criticism from many governments on the continent.

Nine out of 10 situations under investigation by ICC prosecutors are African. All five verdicts have dealt with African suspects from Congo, Central African Republic and Mali.

South Africa has been in conflict with the court since Pretoria failed to carry out an ICC arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he visited Johannesburg last year.

Court spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said the ICC could not comment on Burundi’s vote because it had not yet been formally notified.

“There is a possibility for countries to withdraw, but it only takes effect one year after being submitted to the UNSG,” he said, referring to the United Nations Secretary-General.

“Withdrawal does not effect the past obligation of a country to cooperate with any ongoing proceedings or investigation.”

Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Sandra Maler