Human Rights watch on Tuesday condemned the conviction of four Burundian journalists in a flawed trial on January 30, 2020, describing it as a clear example of the misuse of the justice system to stifle freedom of expression in the central African nation.
The High Court of Bubanza, in western Burundi, convicted Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi – all of whom work for the country’s last remaining independent newspaper, Iwacu – and sentenced them to two and half years in prison and a fine of 1 million Burundian Francs each (approximately US$530).
Although they were charged with complicity in threatening the internal security of the state, they were ultimately convicted of attempting to commit the crime, a lesser criminal offense against which, their lawyers say, they were not allowed to defend themselves in court. They will appeal the conviction.
“Reporting on issues of public interest should not result in a criminal prosecution,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are leading an assault on free expression in the months before the country’s 2020 elections.”
These proceedings lay out in stark terms the politicization of the judiciary in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said.
The journalists were arrested alongside their driver, Adolphe Masabarakiza, while on a reporting trip to Musigati commune, Bubanza province, around midday on October 22, 2019. Iwacu reported that they had informed authorities of their plan to travel to the area to report on an outbreak in fighting between Burundian security forces and the rebel group RED-Tabara.
On December 30, the public prosecutor sought a 15-year sentence against the four journalists and their driver, and sought to have the five stripped of their right to vote for five years after their imprisonment and their property confiscated.
The prosecution cited a message sent on WhatsApp by one of the journalists, which she says was a joke, and claimed that the journalists had not been transparent about their intentions to report on the fighting. In the verdict, the court concluded that the journalists had expressed an intention to collaborate with the rebels even though the attack had already occurred. The charges were changed to attempted threat against state security. According to their lawyers, the defendants were neither informed of this change nor given an opportunity to defend themselves against this new accusation during the proceedings, violating fair trial standards.
Under international human rights law, the accused have the right to defend themselves against the crime they are accused of committing. To do so, they have the right to know and challenge all the evidence the prosecutor has against them. Changing the charges mid-trial without giving the accused an opportunity to defend themselves violates this right.
The court acquitted Masabarakiza, who had already been released from pretrial detention. The judge ordered that the phones, camera, company car, recorders, and notebooks seized from the convicted journalists should be returned to Iwacu. Neither the accused nor representatives of the diplomatic community in Burundi were present when the verdict was announced.
On January 16, 2020, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Burundi’s authorities to drop charges and immediately and unconditionally release the four journalists and all others arrested for exercising their fundamental rights. It also called for European diplomats in Burundi to attend trial proceedings of journalists, human rights activists, and political prisoners, and to visit them in prison, in line with the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. The diplomatic community in Burundi should publicly show its solidarity with the Iwacu journalists by attending the appeals hearings and visiting them in prison.
The convictions form part of a pattern of government repression of people attempting to expose abuse or report on sensitive issues. They take place against a backdrop of an increasing crackdown on perceived government critics, in advance of elections scheduled to begin in May. Prosecutions, threats, and intimidation have forced many activists and journalists to stop working on sensitive political or human rights issues, or leave the country.
In the run up to the vote, ruling party youths and local administrators have arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, and killed real and suspected opposition members with near-total impunity. Human Rights Watch has also documented that they beat, extorted, and blocked access to public services for Burundians across the country to force them to “donate” money and goods for the elections and the ruling party.
On January 26, Évariste Ndayishimiye, the secretary-general of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate.
“Burundian authorities should immediately restore conditions for free and fair elections, which includes ensuring that the media can work without fear of ending up in jail,” Mudge said. “The first necessary step should be the unconditional release of the Iwacu journalists and all other human rights defenders jailed for doing their jobs.”