The Burundi schoolgirls detained for drawing on a photo of President Pierre Nkurunziza in their schoolbooks have been freed, a Human Rights Watch official told CNN on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch Central Africa director Lewis Mudge said the three girls were freed from Ngozi Central Prison two days after Justice Minister Aimée Laurentine Kanyana told state broadcaster RTNB that their provisional release had been approved.
The schoolgirls were charged March 18 with “insulting the head of state” and faced up to five years in jail if they were convicted.
CNN was not immediately able to reach the Burundi government for comment on the case.
The schoolgirls’ detention led to international condemnation of the Burundian government, with critics showing their support for the girls on social media with crudely drawn images of Nkurunziza and the hashtag #FreeOurGirls.
The girls, who are all minors, are part of an initial group of seven arrested earlier this month in Kirundo province in the northeastern part of the African nation.
A 13-year-old girl was released for being below the age of criminal responsibility while four others arrested alongside the schoolgirls were released.
School children in Burundi have previously been jailed in the past for similar offenses.
In 2016, agents of the National Intelligence Service of Burundi arrested eight secondary school students for allegedly insulting Nkurunziza by writing phrases like “Get out” or “No to the 3rd term” on a picture of the President in a textbook, according to Human Rights Watch.
The same year, hundreds of children were expelled from several schools for scribbling on the President’s face in their books.
President Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2005, was re-elected to a third term in 2015 despite massive protests and concerns over the legality of running beyond his second term.
But Burundi’s constitutional court ruled that he was eligible because he was picked by parliament, not elected by people, during his first term.
Scores died in the violence that marred the 2015 vote.
Human Rights Watch said the case was “quickly becoming the benchmark for a crackdown of freedom of expression since 2015.”
“Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing schoolchildren for doodles.”
Just weeks ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the agency was forced to shut its local office of 23 years under concerted pressure from the Burundian government.