Forced into exile, a Burundian lawyer on the frontline


Mr Janvier Bigirimana took part in a TRIAL International training in 2014. How did this new knowledge help him in his fight against impunity?

Can you introduce yourself and explain your background?

Janvier Bigirimana: “My name is Janvier Bigirimana. I have been a lawyer at the Bujumbura Bar since May 2011. I am a human rights specialist and have defended cases involving important high authorities in politics, the police and the military. I was one of Bob Rugurika’s lawyers, the Director of the Radio Publique Africaine (note of the editor: one of the last independent media in Burundi) who was illegally imprisoned. My job obstructed those in power, on top of my involvement with FOCODE, a local civil liberties NGO.”

How did you hear about the training organised by TRIAL International?

“My colleague Pacifique Nininahazwe, who works for FOCODE, told me about the training. He was asked to suggest participants and turned to me. My response could only be positive. Firstly, because defending human rights is my passion, be it on a national, regional or international scale. Also, because one always needs to learn new things. I was not disappointed by this experience, what I learned was incredibly invaluable to my work.”

What aspects of the training were you the most interested in?

“The seizure of the UN mechanisms was the most interesting aspect, because few Burundian lawyers know how such mechanisms operate and how one refers to them. Since the training, I have represented victims in front of those mechanisms.

Another element I enjoyed was the fact that theoretical training was coupled with practical cases. We learned by doing, which was very helpful. Our group was also fortunate enough to participate in a session of the Committee against Torture, in November 2014 in Geneva.”

A political crisis has been shaking your country since 2015. Has your profession changed in any way?

“As I often intervened in the media, I started receiving indirect threats, through family members. They told me I was young and taking too many risks, that I should be nurturing my family instead. With the escalation of violence and repression in Bujumbura, the threats intensified and I was forced into exile. I now work from Rwanda.

As the Burundian judicial system is totally blocked, we are increasingly taking cases before international mechanisms. And this only possible thanks to the training that was offered by TRIAL International! I intend to specialize in this area so that beyond individual cases, I can propose structural changes to facilitate access to justice for every Burundian victim.”