Burundi: Free Journalist Detained on Treason Charges

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Burundi: Free Journalist Detained on Treason Charges

KAMPALA - The Burundian authorities should release Jean Claude Kavumbagu, a
journalist arrested on treason charges on July 17, 2010, the Committee
to Protect Journalists, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights
Defenders Project, and Human Rights Watch said today. The arrest
violates his right to free expression, the groups said.

Kavumbagu, editor of the online news service Net Press, is believed
to have been arrested for a July 12 article in which he criticized
Burundi's security forces and questioned their ability to defend the
country against attack.  The article was in response to the July 11
bombings in Kampala, Uganda and threats from the Somali insurgent group
al-Shabaab to target Burundi because of the presence of Burundian troops
in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). 

"Kavumbagu's arrest is a big step backward for freedom of expression
in Burundi," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"His continued detention and prosecution will have a chilling effect,
sending a message that no criticism of the security forces is tolerated.
The charges should be dropped immediately."

In the article, Kavumbagu wrote 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, [given that] our defense and security forces shine in their
capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our
country.

The authorities charged Kavumbagu with treason under article 570 of
Burundi's criminal code, which penalizes "any Burundian who, in times of
war... knowingly participates in an attempt to demoralize the Army or
the Nation, with the object of weakening national defense." The penalty
for treason is life in prison.

The authorities have not provided Kavumbagu's lawyer with any
explanation as to how his article is aimed at weakening national
security. Nor have they explicitly stated that Burundi is "at war" to
justify the charge of treason as defined in the criminal code.
Kavumbagu's lawyer was not present during his interrogation.

"Burundi's vibrant press is tarnished every time authorities single
out journalists solely on the basis that they have expressed opinions
that are provocative or unpopular among government circles," said Tom
Rhodes, East Africa consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"The government must reverse this trend."

At the time Kavumbagu was charged, the magistrate, without
explanation, ordered his detention, pending trial. Under article 71 of
the Burundian criminal procedure code, pre-trial detention of suspects
is to be used only when necessary to preserve evidence; to protect
public order; to protect the suspect; to prevent the crime from
continuing; or to guarantee that the suspect appears before a court.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, the East and Horn of Africa
Human Rights Defenders Project, and Human Rights Watch said that
Kavumbagu's criticisms of the security forces constitute speech that is
protected by international law and should not result in criminal
penalties. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, to which Burundi is a party, restrictions on free expression for
reasons of national security must be provided by law and be strictly
necessary and proportional to the purpose being sought.  

The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of
Expression and Access to Information, drawn up by leading experts in
freedom of expression in 1996 and endorsed by the UN Human Rights
Council, provide that any law restricting free speech "must be
accessible, unambiguous, drawn narrowly and with precision so as to
enable individuals to foresee whether a particular action is unlawful."
In addition, "[n]o one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the
nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or
public officials...unless the criticism or insult was intended and
likely to incite imminent violence."

"Jean Claude Kavumbagu should be freed immediately," said Hassan
Shire Sheikh, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human
Rights Defenders Project. "The current security situation both in
Burundi and East Africa in general cannot be used as an excuse to
violate fundamental principles of freedom of expression or lead to a
step back in efforts to decriminalize press offenses throughout the
world."

Background

Kavumbagu was arrested at approximately noon on July 17 by police
Col. David Nikiza, who came to his office with a mandat d'amener
(order to appear before a prosecutor) issued by the Bujumbura
prosecutor's office. Kavumbagu was taken to a magistrate for
questioning.

The interrogation largely centered around an article by Kavumbagu in
which he claimed that Burundi was vulnerable to al-Shabaab. On the day
the article was published, al-Shabaab's Sheikh Ali Mohamed Raghe told
journalists that Burundi would be attacked unless it withdrew its forces
from Somalia.

After two hours of interrogation, Kavumbagu was charged with treason
and immediately transferred to Mpimba prison in Bujumbura.

Burundian and regional media organizations, including the Burundian
Journalists' Union and the East African Journalist Association, have
condemned the arrest.

Burundi is often recognized for its vibrant media, which includes
over a dozen private radio stations, a private television station, and
several newspapers, many of which express opinions critical of the
government. However, journalists have been arbitrarily arrested,
harassed, or threatened on numerous occasions.

In April 2006, 30 journalists were briefly detained by police at a
news conference at the residence of a former member of parliament. In
June 2006, Aloys Kabura of the Burundian Press Agency was sentenced to
five months in prison for defamation after he questioned, during a
private conversation in a bar, police conduct during the April events.
In November 2006, three more journalists - Serge Nibizi and Domitille
Kiramvu of Radio Publique Africaine and Mathias Manirakiza of Radio
Isanganiro - were all detained for alleged violations to the national
security of the country. They were tried and acquitted in January 2007.

Kavumbagu has been arrested on five previous occasions. On the most
recent occasion in 2008, he was held in pre-trial detention for seven
months on defamation charges after he published an article accusing
President Pierre Nkurunziza of misuse of public funds
during the 2008 Olympics in China. Kavumbagu was tried and acquitted in
March 2009, although the prosecutor appealed the acquittal, and the case
remains open.

In recent months, several Burundian journalists have been beaten or
threatened by police or by political party activists while covering the
elections currently under way. In other cases, human rights activists,
including members of the Burundian organizations Association for the
Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), Forum for the
Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC), and the Anti-corruption and
Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME), have been threatened or
subjected to surveillance after criticizing the government.

 

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