Burundi ex-minister, generals jailed for life over coup: radio

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A former Burundi defense minister and three other generals were sentenced to life in jail on Friday for their role in a coup that was foiled in May, state radio reported.

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The men were among a group of 28 officers and others on trial for their part in the attempt to topple President Pierre Nkurunziza, who plunged the nation into a crisis last year with his bid for a third term which he secured in a disputed vote.

U.N. officials say the crisis has brought the poor nation to the brink of a new civil war, after it emerged from a 12-year, ethnically fueled conflict just a decade ago.

As well as sentencing former Defence Minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye and three other generals, the court jailed nine others in the group to 30 years in jail and eight more to five years, state radio reported.

Seven people who were acquitted by the court in Gitega, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Bujumbura.

Justice Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Bangiricenge had previously said the group faced charges that included “an attempt to unseat the country’s constitutional institutions”, as well as assassinations and other violent acts.

The coup was launched on May 13 by military officers led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, the former intelligence chief, while Nkurunziza was abroad. It was swiftly quashed.

Niyombare’s fate is unclear. He has not spoken publicly since the coup, although another general who fled after the coup attempt has said he was alive and still leading a rebellion.

The former defense minister, like several others in the group, pleaded guilty during the trial to attempting a coup but denied other charges, such as killing police officers or providing arms to civilians.

Ndayirukiye told the court during the trial that those behind the coup “acted within the Arusha agreement and in a bid to protect the population,” a reference to the Arusha peace accords that ended Burundi’s civil war in 2005.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens