Burundian online journalist faces life in prison for treason

New York, July 19, 2010—Burundian authorities’ arrest on Saturday of journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu on treason charges over commentary critical of the country’s security forces is alarming, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. He is being held in Mpimba prison in the capital, Bujumbura.

Kavumbagu, editor of the private online daily Net Press, could face life in prison if convicted over a July 12 story reporting on the deadly July 11 terrorist attacks in neighboring Uganda, defense lawyer Gabriel Sinarinzi told CPJ. The Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the blasts and threatened more attacks against Uganda and Burundi unless they withdrew peacekeeping forces deployed in Somalia, according to news reports. Net Press’ story questioned the ability of Burundian security forces to prevent a potential attack in the country, and accused the forces of looting and killing in Burundi, according to CPJ research.

It’s not clear why Kavumbagu was charged with treason, a war-time offense, and not under Burundi’s press law, according to Sinarinzi. The defense had requested the journalist’s release on bail pending trial, he added. Kavumbagu’s detention violates the Burundian criminal procedure code, which allows pre-trial detention of suspects under limited conditions that do not apply to the journalist’s case, Sinarinzi said.

“The treason charge against Jean Claude Kavumbagu is an extreme form of intimidation,” CPJ East Africa consultant Tom Rhodes said. “The authorities must follow the national press law and release Kavumbagu on bail.”

Police Officer David Nikiza arrested Kavumbagu at his office on Saturday and took him to the office of Magistrate Tabu Renovat, where he was interrogated for two hours, charged with treason, and transferred to Mpimba prison, the journalist’s brother, Jean-Marie Vianney Kavumbagu, told CPJ. The same day, 15 radio stations in Bujumbura broadcasted a simultaneous message calling for Kavumbagu’s release, he said.

Kavumbagu is already battling a government appeal of a March 2009 dismissal of criminal defamation charges over an article that claimed President Pierre Nkurunziza spent an exorbitant amount during his trip to the 2008 summer Olympics in China, according to Sinarinzi.

Tensions in Burundi were high last month during presidential elections in which all opposition candidates withdrew over fears the outcome would be rigged—the incumbent remained as the only choice on the ballot, The Associated Press reported. And authorities expelled Human Rights Watch researcher Neela Ghoshal from Burundi in May after the publication of a report documenting pre-election violence.