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Journalists in Burundi protest jailing of reporter

A Burundian journalist said Friday that a group of independent reporters would consider staging street protests over the conviction this week of a radio reporter on terrorism charges stemming from a deadly attack on a bar last year.

Georges Nikiza, a freelance reporter who is a prominent member of an association of independent journalists in Burundi, said a court's decision to give a life term to Hassan Ruvakuki was politically motivated and would be actively challenged in court and elsewhere. He said the association members would boycott government functions, including upcoming celebrations marking 50 years of independence for Burundi.

"The journalists are angry about the situation," Nikiza said. "They feel that this decision is incompetent ... and should not be respected."

Ruvakuki, who reported for Radio France Internationale, was sentenced along with 13 others for their alleged role in an attack in which gunmen killed more than 30 people at a bar in a town near the border with Tanzania last September.

The court's decision has been criticized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said in a statement Wednesday from Nairobi, Kenya, that an appeals court must acquit Ruvakuki.

"Ruvakuki's defense counsel said the judges had not been impartial during the trial that the government was pressuring the court to find a conviction, according to local journalists," the statement said.

According to CPJ, "the verdict was based on Ruvakuki's November 2011 trip to a rebel-held area along Burundi's border with Tanzania, during which he recorded an audio statement from Pierre Claver Kabirigi, a former police officer who claimed to be the leader of a new rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu."

Burundi, among the poorest countries in the world, is slowly recovering from years of violence that often threatens to degenerate into civil war. It is also one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work, with independent reporters frequently clashing with the state.

Last year Burundi's National Security Council recommended that the government ban civil society groups and media organizations that had commented unfavorably on the attack for which Ruvakuki was jailed, Nikiza said.