(Jean Pierre Harerimana)
(Jean Pierre Harerimana)

Former CPJ award winner acquitted in Burundi

The staff at CPJ was relieved to hear that former CPJ Press Freedom Award winner Alexis Sinduhije was released from prison today. The former radio station director and veteran Burundian journalist was acquitted by a Bujumbura court after serving four months of a two and a half year jail sentence for “insulting the president.” A three-judge panel acquitted Sindhujie on Wednesday after ruling that the charges against him were unsubstantiated. 

In December 2007, Sindhujie founded the opposition party Movement for Security and Development (MSD). Last November, police raided the MSD office and arrested the popular leader, who was a contender for next year’s elections along with 37 other party members. According to defense lawyer Prosper Niyoyankana, the arrest was purely political–the charges against Sindhujie stemmed from a document found in his office that allegedly insulted Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. 

Sindjujie is no novice to government repression. In 2001, he started Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), which quickly became the most popular station in the country because of its professional, critical reports. These same critical reports led to repeated closures and death threats directed at RPA staffers, and compelled Sindjujie to seek political asylum for his family in 2003.

In his days at RPA, Sindhujie purposely hired ex-combatants from both Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities to bridge ethnic tensions between citizens and heal rivalries after years of intermittent civil conflict. Eventually, the renowned investigative reporter reasoned that, after six years of speaking out about injustice, change was still not forthcoming to Burundi–after the country’s 2005 democratic elections, RPA was still reporting on cases of corruption and oppressive policies that had existed previously under the military regime. Sinduhije finally left journalism for politics. As a Tutsi who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije incorporated the same principals of inter-ethnic harmony into the MSD party.

Given his popularity as a potential presidential contender, civil society in Burundi as well as international supporters extensively lobbied for his release. Last month, the Belgian Cooperation Minister Charles Michel called for his release, as well as that of two other detainees, to ensure that the upcoming elections would be free and fair.

One of the other detainees the minister mentioned was the editor of the online news Web site Net Press, Jean Claude Kavumbagu. Last August Kavumbagu was imprisoned on defamation charges after a report that claimed the president had spent US $90,000 on a trip to China during the Olympics. Burundian Minister of Communications Hafs Mossi told CPJ in December 2008 that Kavumbagu’s case would be “dealt with shortly.” It has now been 180 days, and Kavumbagu is still languishing in Mpimba Central Prison.