Burundi on Friday released the first 142 prisoners from a promised 3 000 detainees to promote reconciliation, the justice minister said, but critics said it was only to ease pressure on crowded jails.
Justice minister Aimee-Laurentine Kanyana attended a release ceremony in the prison at Gitega, the new official political capital of the small east African nation, for the first batch of released prisoners.
President Pierre Nkurunziza promised the prisoner releases in December 2018, the third time he has granted mass pardons to prisoners since the country spiralled into crisis in 2015, sparking mass arrests.
The government has said the releases are to promote “national reconciliation”. But opposition and civil society groups in exile say no political prisoners are to be released and that the move is just to free up more space in jail.
Prisons are massively overcrowded. Burundi has 11 prisons with a capacity for some 4 000 prisoners, but are currently housing more than 11 000 people, according to the rights group Aprodeh.
Those earmarked for release are serving sentences for relatively petty crimes.
“This decree… unfortunately excludes some 4 000 political prisoners who languish in Burundian prisons,” said Aprodeh director Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa.
Burundi has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza sought in April 2015 a fiercely-contested third term in office.
The violence has claimed at least 1 200 lives and displaced more than 400 000 people between April 2015 and May 2017, according to estimates by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an investigation.