Burundian lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly voted to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), taking the nation a step closer to being the first ever to quit the tribunal.
The move is the latest snub of the international community by the central African nation, which has been mired in 18 months of violent political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term in office.
Earlier this week Burundi declared three UN rights experts persona non grata and cut ties with the UN's main human rights body, after a damning September report detailing atrocities and warning of "genocide".
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in April had launched a preliminary investigation into reports of "killing, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as cases of enforced disappearances."
The initial probe is aimed at determining whether there is enough evidence to proceed to a full-blown investigation by ICC prosecutors which could result in drawing up charges against those believed to be responsible for the violence.
"The ICC is a tool being used to try and change power" in Burundi, charged Aloys Ntakirutimana, a lawmaker with the ruling CNDD-FDD, during a three hour debate in the National Assembly on Wednesday.
While a few lawmakers argued against the draft law, it was eventually passed in the lower house with 94 votes in favour, two against and 14 abstentions. Later on Wednesday the Senate passed the law unanimously, with all 39 senators supporting it.
It is expected to be approved by President Pierre Nkurunziza later this week.
Should Burundi withdraw from the ICC it "will most definitely be the first country to do so," said Niall Matthews, communications head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a non-governmental organisation.
"The voices of victims are being lost," added Stephen Lamoy, the group's head of policy at the UN.
- 'Genocide looms large'-
Burundi was plunged into crisis in April 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in office, which he went on to win.
A vicious government crackdown on protests and widespread violence followed, which some rights organisations estimate has left more than 1,000 people dead.
The report by the UN rights experts recounts spine-chilling cases of torture and horrific sexual violence, mass arrests and disappearances.
"Given the country's history, the danger of the crime of genocide also looms large," the report warned.
Burundi has a long history of violence between its Hutu and Tutsi communities, which led to a 12-year civil war that ended in 2006.
The report prompted the UN Human Rights Council to send a Commission of Inquiry to Burundi, a move taken only in rare situations of significant concern.
"It is perfectly clear that this is a plot to do harm to Burundi," Gaston Sindimwo, Burundi's vice president, said last week, referring to the investigations.
Burundi's move to leave the Netherlands-based court comes amid rising resentment in Africa against the ICC, whose leaders accuse it of unfairly targeting Africans for prosecution.
Kenya -- whose president and deputy president were the subjects of failed ICC prosecutions -- is pushing for all African nations to snub the court.
"A few African leaders have been threatening to 'withdraw' from the ICC treaty for seven years; none have so far. Human rights and democracy advocates in Burundi will oppose their government withdrawing," said William Pace of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.
"Seeking immunity for the worst crimes in international law is the worst failure of political leadership."
Set up in 2002 as the last resort to try war criminals and perpetrators of genocide never tried at home, the ICC has opened full investigations into nine nations, all of them African except for Georgia.
The African countries which have come under investigation are Kenya, Ivory Coast, Libya, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda and Mali.
According to the Rome Statute which established the court, any country which wants to leave has to inform the UN secretary general in writing.
The country's departure becomes effective one year after the receipt of a written formal notice of withdrawal but does not affect ongoing investigations.