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Burundi: Violent Suppression of Demonstration Support for Imprisoned Journalist

On Tuesday January 8, 2013, the Court of Burundi sentenced Hassan Ruvakuki, journalist and correspondent for the Radio France International (RFI) Swahili service, on appeal, reducing his sentence from life imprisonment to three years. Since that date, media professionals had demonstrated outside the Court every Tuesday until they were violently stopped and dispersed by the authorities in Bujumbura on February 19.

News blog africanaute.com published [fr] an article about these events:

La police a dispersé ce mardi 19 février 2013, à Bujumbura une marche des journalistes pour demander la libération du correspondant local de la Radio France Internationale (RFI, section Swahili), Hassan Ruvakuki.

Dans la débandade généralisée, certains manifestants ont été blessés, tandis que d'autres ont été victime de malaise lié à l'inhalation de gaz lacrymogène.

Des manifestations de soutien à M. Ruvakuki se sont multipliées ces derniers temps dans les rues de Bujumbura, mais c'est la première fois que la police fait recours à la violence contre le manifestants.

Police in Bujumbura dispersed journalists on Tuesday 19 February 2013 who were marching to demand the release of the local Radio France International correspondent, Hassan Ruvakuki (RFI, Swahili section).In the general upheaval, some demonstrators were injured while others fell victim to illnesses linked to inhalation of tear gas.

Demonstrations in support of Mr Ruvakuki increased greatly during February in the streets of Bujumbura, but this is the first time that the police have made recourse to violence against the protestors.

 

Rémy Harerimana noted [fr] on blog echos-grandslacs.info that on February 19, 2013:

Aujourd’hui certains des représentants des organisations de la société civile burundaise se sont joints aux journalistes dans ces manifestations. Nous devons être solidaires a indiqué Faustin Ndikumana, président de la PARCEM, une organisation de la société civile.

Today some representatives of Burundi civil society organisations joined the journalists in these demonstrations. We must be united as Faustin Ndikumana, president of PARCEM, a civil society organisation said.

How did the situation deteriorate?

Website categorynet.com recapped [fr] how Hassan Ruvaku’s ordeal began:

Hassan Ruvakuki est accusé de complicité avec un groupe rebelle pour s'être rendu en Tanzanie, en novembre 2011, afin de couvrir la naissance d'un mouvement d'insurrection. Le journaliste, emprisonné depuis le 28 novembre 2011, avait été condamné en première instance à la prison à perpétuité pour “terrorisme”.

Après une requalification des charges en “participation à une association formée dans le but d'attenter aux personnes et propriétés” et plusieurs ajournements d'audience, la Cour d'appel avait commué la sentence en trois ans de prison ferme.

Sourd aux protestations internationales, le ministère de la Justice a utilisé le prétexte d'un pourvoi en cassation par le ministère public pour s'opposer à la libération conditionnelle du journaliste. Le pourvoi n'a cependant pas été notifié à l'avocat de Hassan Ruvakuki.

Hassan Ruvakuki was accused of aiding and abetting a rebel group and going to Tanzania in November 2011 to cover up the creation of an insurrection movement. The journalist, who has been imprisoned since November 28, 2011, had initially been sentenced to life imprisonment for ‘terrorism.’After a requalification of the charges to ‘participation in an association created with the aim of attacking people and property’ and several court adjournments, the appeals court commuted the sentence to three years in a closed prison.

Deaf to international protests, the Minister of Justice used the pretext of an appeal by the Public Prosecutor to oppose the conditional release of the journalist. However, Hassan Ruvakuki’s lawyer had not yet been notified of the appeal.

An article by Marie Umukunzi on news blog jambonews.ne criticised [fr] the way the trial unfolded:

Le procès a été entaché par de nombreuses violations telles que la détention du journaliste dans le camp militaire de Cankuzo, un séjour au commissariat de police dépassant la durée légale prévue par la loi, le refus au journaliste d’une assistance juridique lors du passage devant le juge qui a prononcé la mise en détention.

L’avocat du journaliste, maître Onésime Kabayabaya a mis en évidence l’ingérence du pouvoir politique dans cette affaire judiciaire. Sur les ondes de RFI, il déclare que le premier vice président burundais aurait accusé le journaliste d’être coupable d’actes de térrorisme lors d’une rencontre avec le corps diplomatique. De plus, le Président burundais Pierre Nkurunziza défendait sur les ondes de la BBC la condamnation du journaliste.

The trial has been sullied by numerous violations such as the detention of the journalist in the Cankuzo military camp, a stay at the Police Headquarters longer than the legally permitted duration, the refusal to give the journalist juristic assistance during his appearance before the judge who pronounced the detention.The journalist’s lawyer, Onesime Kabayabaya brought to light the interference by political powers in this judicial affair. He declared on RFI radio that the First Vice President of Burundi should have accused the journalist of being guilty of acts of terrorism during a meeting with the diplomatic corps. What is more, the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza,defended the sentencing of the journalist on BBC radio.

Website burunditransparence.org had published an article following the first trial in June 2012 remarking that [fr]:

Ce Mercredi 20 Juin 2012 à CANKUZO, le Tribunal de Grande Instance de cette entité administrative a condamné le journaliste Hassan RUVAKUKI de la radio BONESHA FM de Bujumbura et de la RFI pour une peine à perpétuité. Seize (16) de ses coaccusés ont été également condamnés de la même peine, au moment où neuf (9) autres ont été condamnés pour une peine de quinze (15) ans.

La raison de cette condamnation d'Hassan RUVAKUKI n'est autre que de s'être entretenu avec le chef des rebelles ou insurgés des FRD-ABANYAGIHUGU. Chose pourtant très normale pour tout homme engagé dans le journalisme. Partout au monde, les journalistes de grandes chaines de radios et de télévisions comme CNN, FRANCE 24, TV5, ALDJAZIRA, RFI, BBC, etc.. ne s'abstiennent pas d'engager des interview avec les rebelles, les insurgés et voir même des terroristes et aucun pouvoir ne les a collé les identités de ces derniers.

This Wednesday, June 20, 2012 in Cankuzo, the High Court of this administrative body sentenced journalist Hassan Ruvakuki of Bujumbura Radio Bonesha FM and RFI to life imprisonment. Sixteen (16) of his co-accused were also sentenced to the same punishment, while nine (9) others were sentenced to fifteen (15) years imprisonment.The reason for this sentencing of Hassan Ruvakuki is that he communicated with the head of the rebels or insurgents from the Frd-Abanyagihugu. Something quite normal actually for anybody involved in journalism. All over the world, journalists from the big TV and radio channels such as CNN, France 24, TV5, Al-Jazeera, RFI, the BBC, etc., do not refrain from engaging in interviews with the rebels, insurgents, and even with the terrorists and no government associates their identities with these people.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/01/Road_between_Bujumbura_and_Congo_border_-_Flickr_-_Dave_Proffer_%284%29.jpg/320px-Road_between_Bujumbura_and_Congo_border_-_Flickr_-_Dave_Proffer_%284%29.jpg

Border between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Flickr user Dave Proffer via Wikimedia Commons

Since its 1962 accession to independence, the ex-Belgian colony of Burundi has lurched between violence and civil war interspersed with rare moments of calm. Pierre Nkurunzia's arrival to power, and ex-Sports Teacher and ex rebel chief had raised hopes for a lasting peace, having himself been injured during his days as a guerilla between 1993 to 2003. He was elected head of government by the National Assembly and the Senate in 2005, following an agreement signed under Nelson Mandela in Arusha on August 29, 2000. He was reelected president in 2010 nearly unanimously, receiving more than 91% of votes, the opposition having boycotted the elections.

Website fr.rsf.org/report-burundi criticised him [fr] in an article entitled Burundi Barometer of Press Freedom 2013 [fr]:

Élu à la tête du pays en 2005, le président Pierre Nkurunziza a beau claironner son attachement à la liberté de la presse, rien n’y fait. Les journalistes du Burundi sont entrés, depuis son accession au pouvoir, dans une période de menaces et d’incertitudes. Certains ont été incarcérés. Plusieurs autres ont quitté le pays, de peur de tomber à leur tour dans le piège tendu par les services de sécurité aux hommes et femmes de médias qu’ils considèrent comme des “perturbateurs”.

Elected to lead the country in 2005, although President Pierre Nkurunziza trumpeted his belief in the freedom of the press, nothing was done about it. Since his accession to the government, Burundi journalists have entered into a period of threats and uncertainty. Some have been incarcerated. Several others have left the country, for fear of falling, in their turn, in the trap set by the security services for the media men and women whom they consider to be ‘agitators.’

A conference between the Burundi government and those of other countries, development partners and national and international Civil Society organisations, took place in Geneva on October 29 and 30, 2012. The conference was held to discuss CSLP II [fr], the second Strategic Framework for Growth and the Fight against Poverty, covering the period 2012 to 2016 and was intended to allow discussions about peace and good government.

Before the conference, while hailing the postive advances made in terms of government measures taken with respect ot civil liberty and national reconciliation, NGO Human Rights Watch had published its recommendations for participants in an article entitled Burundi: Human Rights Recommendations for Geneva Conference:

Burundian civil society organizations and the media are generally able to express themselves openly and to investigate and denounce human rights abuses when they occur. But at the same time, these basic freedoms are under threat. Burundian activists and journalists face persistent intimidation, harassment, and threats by government and intelligence officials. Several draft laws before the National Assembly in 2012, including a revised press law and a law on public gatherings, contain severe restrictions to freedom of expression and assembly.

According to an article posted by website arib.info on February 26, 2013, workers in the information sector wearing T-shirts with a picture of Hassan Ruvakuki had again gathered together in Independence Place, right in the middle of Bujumbura, to start a silent march towards the Court.

This support for Hassan Ruvakuki has passed the borders of Burundi. More than 2650 media and press workers and sympathisers from several African countries [fr] had signed a petition demanding his release.

The leaders of Burundi need to understand that, as in other African countries, not respecting legislative texts during management of government normally results in violence and political instability.

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