At 8 o’clock Tuesday morning roughly 50 Burundian journalists silently marched around the courthouses in the capital, Bujumbura, and the offices of the justice minister, protesting the imprisonment of their colleague, Hassan Ruvakuki.
“They sentenced him to three years without following the law,” said Patrick Nduwimana, one of the protest organizers and the interim director of local private radio station Bonesha FM. A week earlier, on Tuesday, January 8, an appeals court in Burundi had sentenced Ruvakuki, a reporter for Bonesha FM and the French government-backed Radio France Internationale, to three years imprisonment for “working with a criminal group.”
The saga began in November 2011, when Ruvakuki interviewed Pierre Claver Kabirigi, a former police officer who claimed to be the leader of a new rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu. At the time, the government had denied existence of the rebel group and told the public only that bandits were operating in the region, Nduwimana told me. Ruvakuki was detained in November 2011and ultimately convicted in June 2012 with supporting a terrorist group. He was given a life sentence. Local journalists say Ruvakuki was arrested for exposing the fact a rebel group with grievances against the ruling party existed in eastern Burundi.
Ruvakuki’s colleagues are still not happy with the appeals court’s move to drop the terrorism charges and reduce his sentence, and the journalists have decided to march in protest every Tuesday advocating for his release.
None of the local journalists I have spoken to believe Ruvakuki received a fair trial. “The prosecution has not provided any proof against Ruvakuki, but Burundian judges are not independent,” said Nduwimana, who is also deputy director of the Association of Burundi Broadcasters.
“Every citizen has the right to a fair trial,” said Innocent Muhozi, president of the Burundian Press Observatory. Muhozi said Ruvakuki’s case is one among many against the press and that journalists must be willing to show their discontent, according to local reports.
The government does not want to admit they have little evidence to justify his arrest, local journalists said. “But they [the government] do not want to show the mistakes they have made in his trial and have made sure Ruvakuki is not acquitted,” Nduwimana said.
Ruvakuki’s lawyer, Fabien Segatwa, plans to request a pardon by the justice minister, RFI reported. Under Burundian law, the minister can pardon an individual who has served one-quarter of a prison sentence. If this measure does not work, Segatwa said, they will appeal the latest ruling through the Supreme Court, RFI reported. In the meantime, Burundian journalists will continue to march every week until justice is served. “We hope one day the truth will triumph,” journalist union leader Alexandre Niyungeko said.