It’s mid afternoon, you’re trying not to doze off in the middle of class, and you find yourself passing time doodling on your notepad. In the zone, allowing your brain and hand to freely dictate, you look up only to find a police officer standing at your desk ready to arrest you. That is the story of a young secondary student in Burundi.
Earlier this month, a total of eleven secondary students were arrested for “insulting” the head of state when doodling in their school books. The Human Rights watch reported in an article, stating, “The students’ arrest marks a turning point and portends a worrying future: Intelligence agents act as if they are accountable to no one and seem to be able to arrest anyone they believe opposes the president. In a judicial system manipulated by the ruling party, those detained are unlikely to receive a fair hearing.”
The Doodle Dilemma
Reports of the infraction indicate that various students were writing phrases such as “Get Out” and “No to the 3rd Term” next to photos of the Head of State, President Pierre Nkurunziza. This is not the first time that school children have been arrested for opposing the current president. In fact hundreds of students were booted from their class in a small town near Ruziba for the exact same offense. When the class failed to identify those responsible for the doodling, the institution banned a total of 230 students from attending school. There have even been reports of one student being badly beat while sitting in a jail cell for doodling on the President’s picture.
On June 14, another nine schools were put under surveillance and investigation for similar accusations.
By law, one can be sentenced to jail for a time ranging from six months to five years, including a fine up to $32. While six of the eleven students were released shortly after the arrest, five still have very serious charges against them and will face prosecution. In addition, the younger group whom are all under the age of 17 will face a new and separate judicial process for minors, making this doodle session a costly way to pass time.
As the world waits to see just how these students will be prosecuted, many are worried about the process due to the overarching influence of the ruling party. Jacques Nshimirimana, the Head of Burundi Children’s Rights Federation told African News, “Today the question is with respect to what kind of charges have been pressed against these students.”
The children’s rights groups are not the only ones worried about these young lives, and Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher for HRW Burundi, also weighed in, telling BuzzFeed News, “The problem is that the judicial system is really under party control. Over the past year it has got significantly worse. Even though there are judges that are trying to do a good job they are often obstructed and overruled. There have been some pretty outrageous trials and verdicts in Burundian courts.”
Human rights, in many cases, are not enacted equally, and while one may have the liberty to draw, say, and express certain things in one country, it doesn’t imply that it will be accepted in another, as clearly pointed out in Burundi. After over 20 days since their initial arrest, these school children still have a long road ahead of them and their actions could land them anywhere from six months to five years of jail time, fines, or suspension. One thing is clear, the next time you plan on doodling, make sure you check the paper you’re scribbling on, or you could find yourself in a jail cell.