New York, April 14, 2011–A Burundi state prosecutor asked a panel of judges on Wednesday to hand journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who has been imprisoned since July 2010 over a column critical of the country’s security forces, the maximum life sentence on a charge of treason, according to local journalists.
State Prosecutor Marc Ndabakeshimana’s request for a life sentence came after CPJ, in a public letter to the Burundi justice minister, called for the prosecution to drop the charges and release Kavumbagu, editor of the news website Net Press.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers Gabriel Sinarinzi and Bernard Maingain called for Kavumbagu’s release, arguing that the treason charge against him was applicable only during times of war, Sinarinzi told CPJ. The defense also argued that the prosecution’s charges of defamation against the army and police were not applicable because the criminal code restricted the use of such charges to cases in which those allegedly defamed were individuals or groups of individuals, not institutional bodies. The court has two months to reach a verdict.
Kavumbagu was arrested over an unbylined article that questioned the ability of the armed forces to ensure national security. The Net Press opinion piece was written after the Somali insurgents Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for twin July 11, 2010, bombings that killed 76 people. Uganda and Burundi are the only African countries with African Union troops defending the Somali government against Al-Shabaab.
“Jean-Claude Kavumbagu is being held on a charge of treason, which applies only in time of war,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Burundi was not at war when he wrote his piece. The charges should be dropped, and he should be freed immediately.”
The prosecution has placed Kavumbagu in preventive detention for nearly nine months, a ruling that can only be applied if the accused had jumped bail before, local journalists told CPJ. Five consecutive governments have arrested Kavumbagu for his critical reporting, he told CPJ during a December visit to Mpimba Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. In none of his arrests has the online journalist posed a flight risk, he said.
Kavumbagu, lost an appeal for bail in November 2010 and is imprisoned with hardened criminals in Mpimba prison, a facility designed for 800 inmates but which houses 3,500.