By Millicent Zighe
The Ntahangwa Court of Appeal has decided to continue detaining four journalists from Iwacu Press Limited after they were charged with undermining state security.
Christine Kamikazi, Agnes Ndirubusa, Terence Mpozenzi, Egide Harerimana were arrested alongside their driver, Adolphe Masabarakiza, while covering Bubanza clashes on October 22, 2019.
While reacting to the decision Lawyer Clement Retirakiza expressed his regret, terming it a huge blow to the defense team.
“We are disappointed because we hoped that the court would cancel the order to detain the four journalists. Although one of the defendants, the journalist’s driver was granted provisional release, it’s hard for us to accept this decision which is far from meeting our expectations” he lamented.
In his initial filing, Retirakiza had mentioned article 154 of the revised code of Criminal Procedure which stipulates “Freedom being the rule and detention the exception, an accused may not be detained unless there is sufficient evidence against them and that the facts alleged against them appear to constitute an offense punishable by law at least one year of penal servitude.”
The detainees are now expected to appear before the Bubanza court to plead their case.
“The prosecutor has the period of one month to transmit the documents of the file to the High Court. At this level, the case will be judged on its merits. We will do everything to ensure that this trial is held as soon as possible,” Retirakiza stated.
According to Iwacu news website, the four journalists had sought permission from authorities to report on the clashes. This claim has since been denied by Burundi authorities.
At around 12:40 pm, police descended on them while they were collecting testimonies from residents fleeing the area of attack.
Witnesses report that they confiscated the journalists’ phones and vehicle before they were apprehended to the station. The four were later questioned by a judicial police officer in presence of their lawyer.
“They were arrested by the chief of police operations in this region. The arrested journalists had, however announced themselves to administrative authorities of Bubanza that they wanted to go to Musigati commune where clashes between the police and a group of armed people going to Kibira forest were reported since morning,” reported the media house.
Following the arrest, The Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, Lewis Mudge urged the government to stop the clampdown on media houses. He also demanded the release of the four journalists.
“Journalists play a vital role shedding light on incidents of public interest and should not be prosecuted for legitimate work,” he said. “The authorities should reverse the current crackdown on media freedom and as a first step immediately release the four journalists who are being detained for doing their jobs”
Burundi Union of Journalists (UBJ) also expressed concerns over the security of the four journalists who are still languishing at Bubanza Prison.
“UBJ is concerned with this arrest and fears for the security of those journalists, having in mind the fate of Jean Bigirimana, another journalist from Iwacu who was kidnapped in July 2016 and is still missing,” the group said in a statement.
The National Communication Council of Burundi (CNC) recently suspended Iwacu online comments further infringing people’s right of expression.
During a press conference, Deputy Spokesperson of Burundi Security Ministry Moise Nkurunzinza said a group of armed people from DRC Congo were seen by locals at Kayange village, Bubanza Province, who then alerted the police.He added that at least 14 members of the militia group had been killed. However, he made no reference to the arrested journalists.
A Burundi rebel group known as Resistance for the Rule of Law Tabara (RED) based in DRC Congo claimed responsibility of the attack. The group further refuted Nkurunzinza’s death toll as “complete fantasy”
“As we had the advantage of surprise, dozens of police officers were killed, and on our side, we lost one fighter and another was captured,” one member of the group told AFP.
RED Tabara was formed in 2015 and is made up of former Burundi army members.
It is believed that the leader of the group is Alexis Sinduhije, a staunch critic of President Pierre Nkurunzinza regime. Nonetheless, the group has denied Sinduhije as its leader. According to the group’s twitter account, the attack was a start of a “resistance” to push for rule of law in Burundi.
The group further added that the country is not as stable as the government claims.