Burundian prosecutor requests life sentence for journalist

New York, May 8, 2012–State prosecutors requested a life sentence today for Burundian radio reporter Hassan Ruvakuki who was imprisoned after airing a November interview with a purported rebel leader, according to news reports.

Chief Prosecutor Barbatus Ntakarusho made the request during a hearing at a court in Cankuzo, a city in eastern Burundi, saying the reporter had engaged in “acts of terrorism,” the journalist’s defense lawyer, Onesime Kabayabaya, told CPJ. Ruvakuki is a reporter for the French government-funded Radio France Internationale and the local station Radio Bonesha FM.

On November 28, security agents arrested Ruvakuki without a warrant, searched his home, and questioned him over his alleged links to a rebel group, according to news reports. He was held incommunicado for seven days at a military camp, local journalists told CPJ. Radio Bonesha FM had aired an interview the week before with a former police officer who claimed to be part of the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu, a new rebel group in Burundi, news reports said.

Ruvakuki refused to enter a plea at today’s hearing, local journalists told CPJ. In an appeal filed in February, the defense had raised numerous questions about the fairness of the legal proceedings, challenging the impartiality of the judges hearing the case and saying they had blocked the defense’s access to the prosecution files. Ruvakuki also said that the defense had not been informed of the results of the February appeal, according to local journalists.

“Conducting an interview is not an act of terrorism. Burundian authorities are misusing the law to punish a journalist for airing material they did not like,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “The arrest and prosecution of Hassan Ruvakuki has been marked by a lack of fairness and due process. The case should be dropped immediately.”

Ruvakuki is being held at Muramvya Prison, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital, Bujumbura, Patrick Nduwimana, Radio Bonesha’s interim director, told CPJ. The journalist has been transferred three times since he was arrested, according to news reports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been modified to reflect the correct spelling of Hassan Ruvakuki’s name.