Burundi's constitutional court has validated the president's controversial bid for a third term, but the deputy president of the court, who fled to Rwanda ahead of the ruling, called it unconstitutional.
Tuesday's ruling came amid prolonged demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term. At least nine people have been killed in violent confrontations with the police since last week, according to the Burundi Red Cross. Scores more have been wounded.
Burundi's constitution says the president is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years, renewable one time. Nkurunziza was first installed as president in 2005 by parliament to lead a transitional government. He won the 2010 presidential election as the sole candidate, after opposition members boycotted the vote saying they feared it would be rigged.
Nkurunziza's supporters say he can run again in the June 26 election because his first term, when he was picked by lawmakers and not elected, does not count.
The government has urged protesters to accept the ruling and stop demonstrating, although some officials opposed the ruling, saying it was unfair.
“As a Burundian and custodian of the law, my conscience could not allow me to be part of something all Burundians were standing up against, something that violates the constitution and the pillars upon which peace was achieved in Burundi,” Court Deputy President Sylvere Nimpagaritse told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Rusizi, Rwanda, where he fled ahead of the ruling.
Nimpagaritse is one of at least four of seven constitution court judges who have fled the country.
Nimpagaritse told Agence France-Presse that the court's judges had come under “enormous pressure and even death threats” from senior figures, which he refused to name, to approve Nkurunziza’s disputed candidature.
Opposition leaders also denounced the court ruling.
“We don't care about the constitutional court decision because we know this court is manipulated,” said Jean Minani, leader of Frodebu-Nyakuri party, which has participated in the demonstrations. He said civil actions would not stop until the president backed down.
“The first term we accepted. The second term we accepted. We will never accept the third term,” demonstrators shouted outside a hotel where the government met opponents, civil society groups and diplomats on Tuesday.
Police soon pushed them away, but the demonstrators remained defiant.
At least three people were killed in Burundi on Monday in clashes with security forces, according to the Burundi Red Cross. An estimated 45 more people were wounded, said Red Cross spokesman Alexis Manirakiza.
Last week at least six people were killed in violent confrontations with the police, who fired live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. The protests are happening mostly in the suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura.
The police defended their aggressive tactics, saying they had restrained themselves even when 15 police officers were wounded by an exploding grenade allegedly thrown by protesters.
Burundi's defense minister, Maj. Gen. Pontien Gaciyubwenge, said on Saturday that the army should remain neutral amid the unrest. He urged “all political actors” to avoid violence.
The flare-up in Burundi threatens wider repercussions in a region with a history of ethnic conflict and where other presidents are also facing term-limit deadlines soon.
Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said she was concerned about the unrest in Burundi, which shares the same ethnic mix as Rwanda, where a 1994 genocide killed 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.
“While we respect Burundi's sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent population as a regional and international responsibility,” she said in a statement, urging the government to restore peace.
At least 24,000 people – mostly Tutsis – have fled Burundi for neighboring Rwanda in recent weeks, amid mounting tensions. About 7,000 people have also crossed over Burundi’s western border into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The United States has also criticized the decision by Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel commander, to seek a third term.
Speaking in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday: “We are deeply concerned about President Nkurunziza's decision, which flies directly in the face of the constitution of his country.”
Al Jazeera and wire services