GITEGA, Burundi (Reuters) - A court in Burundi reduced a life sentence handed last year to a reporter accused of complicity in a 2011 gun attack after finding him guilty of a less serious offence, an appeal judge said on Tuesday.
Deadly clashes last year between security forces and former militia fighters rocked the landlocked central African country, which had enjoyed relative peace since rebels laid down arms and joined the government in 2009 after two decades of civil war.
Journalists have been targeted in a wave of detentions. Human Rights Watch said last year the government was trying to restrict efforts by independent media and civil society to denounce violence blamed on the state.
Hassan Ruvakuki, a reporter for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and a Burundi independent radio station, was arrested in November 2011, accused of involvement in the attack by militants on the eastern town of Cankuzo that was launched from neighboring Tanzania.
The prosecution had said Ruvakuki was complicit in the attack because he had travelled to Tanzania earlier that month and interviewed the rebel group’s proclaimed leader. He was convicted by a court of first instance in June last year.
“The court redefines the charges against Ruvakuki and says he is guilty of participation in an association formed for the purpose of attacking people and property,” said the head of the appeal court in the central province of Gitega, Fulgence Ruberintwari.
“Consequently, the court sentences him to three years in prison,” he told a crowd that included journalists and members of the public who had come to hear the verdict.
Alexandre Niyungeko, chairman of the Burundi journalists’ union, said he was shocked by the new verdict. One of Ruvakuki’s lawyers said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.
“I am not happy with the judgment even if the penalty was reduced,” said the lawyer, Fabien Segatwa. “It is an unjust conviction.”
Critics accuse President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling party of monopolizing power, appointing only members of one ethnic community, the Hutu, into positions of power and repressing the opposition, which boycotted elections in 2010.
The appeal court reduced the prison terms of 13 other defendants accused of being rebel fighters, who were convicted in the same case. Ten of them had their sentences cut to three years and three were given 20 years. Nine others had their life terms upheld.
Editing by George Obulutsa and Tom Pfeiffer