The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has today vigorously condemned the ruling of an Appeals Court in Burundi which handed a three year jail term to journalist Hassan Ruvakiki. He had appealed the decision of Tribunal of First Instance in Muramvya which convicted him of 'acts of terrorism' and sentenced him to life imprisonment in July 2012.
According to the Burundi journalists' union (UBJ in French), an IFJ affiliate, the Appeal Court of Gitega on 8 January found Hassan guilty of 'membership of an organisation aiming at attacking people and their properties' and ordered he serve three years in prison.
«Today's sentence is a travesty and a denial of justice for Ruvakiki, his family and his colleagues," said Jim Boumelha, IFJ president. « The new qualification of charges demonstrates that the court has accepted Hassan's innocence from crimes he was accused of in the first instance. Instead of pronouncing his acquittal , the court has introduced a new charge against which he was not even able to defend himself. ».
Ruvakuki, a correspondent for the Swahili service of Radio France International ( RFI) and journalist for a private station in Burundi, Bonesha FM, was arrested on 28 November 2011 by the security forces after he had interviewed an opponent of President Pierre Nkurunziza. He was charged with on charges of "terrorism" which he has always denied. He was convicted in July 2012 and given a life sentence but he appealed the decision.
At his appeal last November, Hassan Ruvakiki maintained his innocence, declaring to the Appeals Court that he was doing his job as a journalist when he travelled to Tanzania to interview an opposition leader.
The IFJ, the UBJ and the Federation of African Journalists have supported Ruvakiki during all the trial process. An IFJ delegation and UBJ's members met recently with Hassan Ruvakiki at the Muramvya central prison to express the solidarity of the entire Federation. In December last year, Dominique Pradalié, Secretary General of France's National Union of Journalists (SNJ), an IFJ affiliate, also paid him a solidarity visit.
"We are outraged by this sentence which exposed the will of the authorities to muzzle press freedom in the country," said Omar Faruk Osman, president of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ).
The President of the Burundi Journalists' Union Alexandre Niyungeko spoke of his surprise after today's sentence, noting that charges against Ruvakiki have changed three times.
«Our colleague has been first accused of collaborating with rebels, then of complicity with terrorist groups and now for being member of a criminal organisation. Today's verdict shows that the country is still far away from achieving a fair and independent justice," commented Alexandre Niyungenko.
He however vowed that the legal fight to free the journalist will continue. « We will not stop our mobilization at this stage. UBJ will apply to the Supreme Court for redress in this case," Niyungeko said after the sentence. "We will address if necessary regional and international courts. We will never let our colleague languish in prison. "