Outrage, shock, anger and disbelief gripped the international media fraternity early this week after a Burundi correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI), jailed since November 2011, was sentenced to three years in prison for ‘terrorism’.
Hassan Ruvakuki has been initially sentenced to life in prison, after following a newly formed rebel group to Tanzania to interview its leader Pierre Claver Kabirigi. Kabirigi is a former police officer and is reportedly to be at the helm of the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu.
A court in the city of Gitega, Burundi’s second-largest city, reduced that sentence to three years for ‘conspiracy’, setting aside the ‘terrorism’ charge. Ruvakuki is also a reporter for local radio station Bonesha FM.
Media rights campaigners were shocked by the verdict. “There is no reason Ruvakuki should spend even a minute in prison,” Committee to Protect Journalists’ East Africa consultant Tom Rhodes said. “Interviewing members of a rebel group does not constitute participation in the group. This conviction, which criminalises news reporting, should not be allowed to stand.” In Paris, France, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) said it sees this verdict as a sign of eagerness of some Burundian authorities, who are determined to condemn the journalist at all costs.
His lawyer, Fabien Segatwa, told RFI: “Hassan is innocent. That is why we ask the minister of justice to grant him parole because he has already served a quarter of his sentence. Thereafter, I will ask my client to lodge an appeal.”
Burundi and its east African neighbours Rwanda and Uganda are being ruled by heads of state described by critics as dictators and media predators. The three countries have appalling human right records, and freedom of expression and media liberties exist only on paper. All three countries are also facing intense rebellion, which constantly threatens their fragile and ‘corrupt’ regimes.
Critical journalists and political opposition politicians have been indefinitely jailed, and some mysteriously shot and killed. And those who survived fled and never returned. Critics said courts in these countries are no longer independent and impartial, as members of the judiciary have sold their souls to the government for money and property.
This is what justifies Ruvakuki’s lawyer and RSF’s outrage. “Before, he was prosecuted for terrorism. Now he is charged with conspiracy. “Obviously for me, the new charge remains doubtful because there has never been part of a conspiracy as he knew no one from the rebel group. And he has never been with them before. So the conspiracy is almost impossible in his case,” he was quoted as saying by the RFI website.
According to RSF, several sources in Gitega said security apparatus of the state have been putting the Court of Appeal under tremendous pressure not to acquit Ruvakuki.
*Photo by Esdras Ndikumana (courtesy of AFP). Hassan Ruvakuki flanked by security forces.