Nairobi — An appeals court in Burundi today dropped terrorism charges against jailed journalist Hassan Ruvakuki and reduced his sentence from life to three years in prison, according to local journalists and news reports.
Ruvakuki, a reporter for local radio station Bonesha FM and French government-funded broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI), has been in prison since November 2011 and was convicted in June of "participating in terrorist attacks" based on his coverage of a local rebel group, news reports said.
In November 2011, Ruvakuki had 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.
In today's decision, the court in Gitega, Burundi's second largest city, ruled that the reporter was guilty of participating with a criminal group "formed for the purpose of attacking people and property," a less serious offense than association with a terrorist group, local journalists told CPJ. The verdict was delivered in a courtroom full of the journalist's supporters, but Ruvakuki was not present, Bonesha FM Director Patrick Nduwimana told CPJ. Nduwimana also said that Ruvakuki told him he was disappointed in the verdict as he had hoped to be released.
"There is no reason Hassan Ruvakuki should spend even a minute in prison," said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. "Interviewing members of a rebel group does not constitute participation in the group. This conviction, which criminalizes news reporting, should not be allowed to stand."
Ruvakuki's defense lawyer, Fabien Segatwa, said he planned to ask the government to pardon the journalist, RFI reported. Under Burundian law, authorities can pardon an individual who has served one-quarter of a prison sentence. If that failed, Segatwa said, he would appeal the ruling through the Supreme Court, RFI reported.
For more data and analysis on Burundi, visit CPJ's Burundi page here.