A band of hardy protesters was easy to miss Saturday in Monument Square as they huddled against wind chill factors of minus 20 degrees.

But the 30 or so people who turned out, taking refuge in the Portland Public Library at times to escape the extreme cold, said their message was too important to let cold weather keep them away.

“We can’t keep silent,” said Philemon Dushimire, a Burundian asylee, of Westbrook.

Dushimire organized the event to protest the presence in Portland of Willy Nyamitwe, a senior adviser and spokesman for Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose regime has been under investigation since November by the International Criminal Court, the Hague-based tribunal for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. A United Nations human rights panel concluded in September that Burundi’s top leaders had been involved in killings, torture, sexual violence and other crimes.

Most of the protesters declined to give their names or have themselves photographed for fear of repercussions against their relatives back in Burundi.

Nyamitwe has been in Portland visiting his wife and three children, who are living somewhere in the Portland area and possibly seeking asylum.

Nyamitwe confirmed his visit to Maine in Twitter and email messages after the protest and said he would be leaving “over the weekend.”

His presence is viewed as a threat by other Maine Burundians who fled the small, central-east African country to Portland during the past decade to escape the Nkurunziza regime.

There are about 1,000 Burundians living in Greater Portland, one of the largest communities in the United States. Maine Burundians tend to be well-educated, fluent in English and with the financial means to flee their homeland. Many have left behind businesses, real estate and large, extended families.

In recent days, Nyamitwe has been spotted at the Maine Mall and other area locations, said Jamie Wagner, an immigration lawyer who works with the Burundi community in Maine.

Wagner questioned why Nyamitwe had been issued a visa and was “sipping lattes” in Maine coffee shops when other foreigners cannot get permission to travel in the United States.

Nyamitwe posted a news release Saturday on his Facebook page and Twitter account acknowledging the Monument Square protest, denying any genocide in Burundi and claiming he was the target of an assassination attempt in Burundi in 2016.

“While I recognize the right of everyone to express themselves by available legal means, I would like to take this opportunity to draw the attention of the opinion that the claims made on a ‘Genocide being committed by the Government of Burundi’ is yet an umpteenth baseless and shameful fabrication,” he said in the release. “It is on the record that no genocide is going on across Burundi as people go by with their business on a daily basis.”

He also posted comments during the protest.

“Following closely the demonstration in Maine against @willynyamitwe. The organizers fail to mobilize large numbers and urge people to enter the Library to wait for others,” he said.

Dushimire, a community organizer who works as a caregiver at Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, came to the United States in 2010. He said any Burundian living in the United States came here to escape people like Nyamitwe. Dushimire said he and other Maine Burundians feel unsafe with Nyamitwe in their midst and they want his visa canceled.

The only reason Maine Burundians offer to explain why Nyamitwe’s family would be seeking asylum in Maine, where most Burundians despise them, is that the situation in Burundi is out of control, Wagner said.

“He may have some issues with the system in Burundi,” Dushimire said.

Nyamitwe said in an email after the protest that he is in the Portland area trying to persuade his wife, who has been terrified since the assassination attempt, to come back to Burundi.

“I am here on visit to try to convince my wife to go back home but she still refuses. In fact, she is still in shock, and is afraid for her life because those who tried to murder me could take revenge on her,” he wrote. “Those who claim that she is not welcome are those individuals who lied claiming that there was a GENOCIDE going on in Burundi. They are now exposed as the arguments used in their asylum applications are dwindling down one by one because they are baseless and packaged in lies.”

The State Department on Saturday said it could not confirm Nyamitwe’s visit to the United States and referred questions to the Burundi embassy in Washington. It was closed Saturday and unavailable to confirm his status in the U.S.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: bquimby

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