Burundi Tribune
Burundi Tribune

CPJ meets jailed Burundian journalist, calls for his release

Bujumbura, December 9, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called for the release of journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu after visiting him in prison in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. CPJ made the call at a press conference marking the end of a four-day mission to Burundi.
CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes met with Kavumbagu, at left, editor of the French-language news site Net Press, at Mpimba Prison on Wednesday for more than an hour. 

The same day, the delegation pressed for Kavumbagu’s immediate release in meetings with First Vice President Thérence Sinunguruza and Information Minister Concilie Nibigira. 

Kavumbagu, sub-Saharan Africa’s only jailed online journalist, looked thin and drawn as he recounted his ordeal since police arrested him on July 17 and charged him with treason over an unbylined article that questioned the ability of the armed forces to ensure national security.

“The case against Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been mishandled from day one,” said Mahoney. “He has been charged with ‘treason in time of war’ but even the prosecutor has acknowledged in court that Burundi is not at war. He should be released immediately and this bogus indictment dropped.”

The Net Press article came a day after a deadly twin bomb attack in neighboring Uganda for which the Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. It threatened more attacks if Uganda and Burundi did not withdraw troops deployed in Somalia to defend the Mogadishu government, according to news reports. The article cast doubt on the Burundian security services’ ability to prevent similar bombings in Burundi.

The charge of treason under Article 570 of the penal code provides for life imprisonment but it is applicable only during wartime.

“The charges are completely politicized,” Kavumbagu told CPJ.  He said he was being punished for more than a decade of reporting and comment critical of the former rebels who now form the largest party in the government. “This is their revenge,” he said.

Kavumbagu said five consecutive governments had arrested him for his reporting. “Arbitrary arrests must stop. This is my fifth time but I have never been convicted,” he added.  Kavumbagu is being held with common criminals in a prison designed for 800 inmates that now houses 3,500, he said. 

Defense lawyer Gabriel Sinarinzi told CPJ his client had not received due process and been repeatedly denied bail even though his record of previous arrests showed he posed no flight risk.

In meetings with government ministers, CPJ called for the charges to be dropped but at the very least Kavumbagu should be freed on bail while his case was pending.

First Vice President Sinunguruza declined to comment on the specifics of Kavumbagu’s case but he acknowledged that some cases dragged on unnecessarily. “There are a lot of abuses being committed in the judiciary,” Sinunguruza told CPJ, “I told a closed meeting of senior (justice) officials that they need to deal with those cases and speed them up and avoid corruption because it is ruining our image.”