21 ‘table tennis club’ members arrested in Burundi

Burundi police said Tuesday they had arrested 21 people suspected of holding meetings to “disrupt security”, while those close to the suspects claim they were merely gathering to play table tennis.

“Twenty-one people including an army officer, two police officers, a retired army officer and civilians were apprehended by police on (Monday) night at a house in the Carama district” of the capital, police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye told state radio.

“The population alerted security forces that people were often meeting at this house and that they had plans to disrupt security,” he said, adding that an investigation was under way that would allow him to elaborate on the charges against them.

Several people close to those arrested told AFP they belonged to a table tennis club, officially registered with the Bujumbura municipality, and met there several times a week to play.

A high-ranking security official told AFP on condition of anonymity that “all those arrested have been placed in SNR (National Intelligence Services) cells and are being interrogated”.

The feared SNR, which falls directly under President Pierre Nkurunziza, is considered one of the main tools of repression in Burundi.

“The leader of this tennis club showed their authorisation to the agents but the Burundi secret service is very nervous with the upcoming constitutional referendum because they fear opponents will try disturb security,” he said.

Nkurunziza, 54, has set May 17 as the date for a referendum on a controversial constitutional reform that could keep him in power until 2034.

Nkurunziza ran for a third five-year term and was re-elected in 2015 despite a two-term limit under the constitution, triggering violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and sent more than 400,000 Burundians fleeing abroad. (AFP)