May 23, 2011

BURUNDI: Online editor sentenced and released

The Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International (WiPC) welcomes the 16 May 2011 release of Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of the online press agency Net Press. On 13 May Kavumbagu was acquitted of treason but sentenced to eight months in prison and a fine of 100,000 Burundian francs (50 Euros) on a lesser charge of publishing an article “liable to undermine the state’s credibility and national economy.” He was freed immediately as he had already spent more than 10 months in pre-trial detention. All other charges against him, including defamation and press law violations, were dropped

On 12 July 2010, one day after suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, Kavumbagu published an article questioning the capacity of Burundian security forces to protect the country from a terrorist attack. Somali Islamist armed group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bombings in Uganda. They also threatened to attack Burundi in retaliation for Burundi’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Kavumbagu’s article said that “the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura and all those who have heard about [the bombings] yesterday in Kampala were convinced that if the al-Shabaab militants wanted to try ‘something' in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease, [as] our defense and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our country.” The journalist was arrested on 17 July 2010, questioned without a lawyer, charged with treason, and transferred to Mpimba Central Prison, Bujumbura. He was also charged with defamation and violating Burundi’s press law. His application for bail was rejected in September and confirmed on appeal in November.

At a hearing on 13 April 2011, a state prosecutor asked a panel of judges to impose the maximum life sentence for treason on Kavumbagu. His defence lawyers called for his release on the basis that ‘treason’ is only applicable at times of war and that during the bail appeal hearing in November 2010, a state prosecutor had already acknowledged that Burundi was not at war. They also argued that the prosecution’s charges of defamation against the army and police were not applicable because the criminal code restricted the use of such charges to cases in which those allegedly defamed were individuals or groups of individuals, not institutional bodies. Kavumbagu was detained in Mpimba Central Prison, which is overcrowded and insanitary and conditions fall well below international standards.

The WiPC welcomes Kavumbagu’s release and the fact that treason and other charges were dropped, however it protests his criminal sentence and his lengthy detention. It considers that the journalist was held and convicted in violation of his right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Burundi is a state party. It calls on the Burundian government to amend its press law to decriminalise press offences.

Useful Links:

Human Rights Watch (18 May 2011) 

Reporters without Borders (17 May 2011)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (17 May 2011)

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