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Richard Wilson: support Jean-Claude Kavumbagu
13 Aug 10

While Burundi’s war criminals go unpunished, my friend faces “treason” trial over critical article, says Richard Wilson

What do you do when someone you love gets murdered in a distant country you know almost nothing about? A decade ago my sister Charlotte died in a massacre in the small Central African state of Burundi. In the years that followed I was consumed by a need to understand why she had been killed, who had been responsible, and what, if anything could be done to bring them to book. Only a handful of people in the world could help me. Almost all were journalists. One of them was Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of Burundi’s Netpress news agency.

The information, advice and contacts Jean-Claude gave me proved vital when I came to write the book about my sister’s life and death, Titanic Express. With truth comes a certain kind of cartharsis. To the extent that one ever can, I’ve “moved on” from what happened. But I will always remain endebted to those who helped my family find answers, asking nothing in return but that we do what we could to focus attention on the outrages happening in their country.

Jean-Claude has been a thorn in the side of successive governments in Burundi, both Hutu and Tutsi. His views are often controversial, but there is no questioning the price he has paid for them. In 1999, a year before my sister’s death, Jean-Claude was arrested by the Tutsi-led regime of Pierre Buyoya and held for two weeks on charges of operating an unregistered newspaper. He was detained again in 2001 by the same regime, and accused of insulting the public prosecutor. 2003 saw the installation of a new, Hutu-led government, which loudly proclaimed its commitment to peace, democracy and human rights. Three months later, Jean-Claude was arrested yet again and charged with “insulting the authorities”.

Elections in 2005 saw a landslide win for the Hutu ex-rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, who has gained plaudits for his talk of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. Sadly, Nkurunziza has been markedly unforgiving of critical coverage by the independent media. While no serious efforts have been made to prosecute those responsible for the ethnic massacres that have plagued Burundi over the last two decades, in recent years dozens of independent journalists have been detained or threatened over their work.

In 2008, Jean-Claude was arrested and accused of “libellous writing and insulting remarks” after a Netpress article claimed that the President had spent over $90,000 on his trip to the Olympics in Beijing. The government reportedly insisted that the true sum was half that amount — a figure that would still be 150 times the average annual income in Burundi. This time Jean-Claude was held for six months, spending Christmas in prison before finally being tried and acquitted of criminal “defamation” in March last year.

For a group of hardened former bush fighters, Burundi’s ruling party seems remarkably sensitive to “insults”, real or imagined. Were I in Jean-Claude’s position, I think I would by now have joined the many government critics who have fled the country — or at least retreated into a quiet retirement. Yet he has continued to speak out against corruption, abuses by the security forces, and the state’s apparent indifference towards the welfare of ordinary Burundians.

Commenting on Netpress following last month’s Islamist attacks in Uganda, Jean-Claude wrote that “the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura… 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.”

Harsh, certainly. But arguably fair given Burundi’s recent history. For making these comments, Jean-Claude was arrested and charged with “treason” — a wartime crime carrying a possible life sentence. The same day, 15 Burundian radio stations broadcast a simultaneous call for his release — a demand supported by human rights groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and the Federation of African Journalists.

For the moment, however, Burundi’s ruling party seems set on its course — emboldened perhaps by the dominance it now enjoys after the opposition pulled out of June’s general elections amid fears of vote-rigging. Earlier this week another journalist, Thierry Ndayishimiye, was arrested and charged with “defamation” over an article alleging corruption within the state energy authority.

President Nkurunziza may also have one eye on the situation in neighbouring Rwanda, where — as Index reported earlier this week – the aid money and accolades have continued to pour in, despite the murderous repression of the independent media.

Richard Wilson is a freelance writer and blogger. He is the author of Titanic Express and Don’t Get Fooled Again