THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — International Criminal Court judges have authorized an investigation into allegations of state-sponsored crimes in Burundi including murder, rape and torture, announcing the decision Thursday shortly after the East African nation became the first to formally quit the court.
Judges said evidence provided by prosecutors offers "a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation" into crimes committed since April 26, 2015, allegedly by "State agents and other groups implementing State policies."
Burundi descended into violence that left hundreds dead in 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term that he ultimately won.
"According to estimates, at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured and hundreds disappeared," the court said in a statement. "The alleged acts of violence have reportedly resulted in the displacement of 413,490 persons between April 2015 and May 2017."
The crimes allegedly were committed by Burundi's national police force, intelligence service, units of the country's army and members of the youth wing of the ruling party known as the Imbonerakure.
Judges issued the authorization under seal on Oct. 25, two days before Burundi's withdrawal from the ICC. It is the 11th full-scale investigation by the court that prosecutes some of the world's worst atrocities. All but one of the investigations are in Africa.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her investigation uncovered evidence that suggested police and security forces, "acting pursuant to a state policy, carried out a deliberate attack against the civilian population, entailing multiple acts of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance and persecution, constituting crimes against humanity."
She stressed that Burundi remains obliged to cooperate with her investigation, despite the country's withdrawal from the ICC.
"It's a great day for justice and for victims of crimes against humanity that were committed in Burundi over the last two-and-a-half years," said iBurundi, a group of Burundian activists that seeks to expose alleged government crimes. "We know that it will take long but the path toward justice will not be stopped."
Burundi government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba said the nation would not help the ICC investigation.
"We are no longer a state member," he said. "They can do whatever they want, they can take all initiatives they want, Burundi will not cooperate because we stopped collaboration."
Last month, Burundi's Justice Minister Aimee Laurentine Kanyana called the ICC withdrawal "a great achievement" in reinforcing the country's independence, and called on police and prosecutors to respect human rights so that "white people" won't have "false proofs to rely on in accusing Burundi."
A U.N. commission of inquiry report earlier this year said crimes against humanity, including killings and sexual violence, are still being committed in Burundi, and it asked the ICC to open an investigation as soon as possible. The report was based on interviews with more than 500 witnesses.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Thursday's decision, saying it "signals that ICC withdrawal does not shield a government from scrutiny about its role in grave human rights violations." Param-Preet Singh, the group's associate international justice director, added: "The role of the ICC cannot be negated, leaving horrific abuses forgotten in darkness."
Associated Press writers Eloge Willy Kaneza in Bujumbura, Burundi and Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda contributed.