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Government extinguishes criticism with legal harassment

With a judiciary vulnerable to political interference, Burundian authorities have been behind a series of politically motivated arrests and summonses of journalists and lawyers to muffle public criticism, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Two privately owned radio stations highly critical of the Burundian government have been intensely targeted by the National Council for Communication (CNC). Several of these radio journalists have been called in for questioning by the public prosecutor in recent months.

For instance, on 9 August, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) editor Bob Rugurika was interrogated for the fifth time by a magistrate in the capital, Bujumbura, about programmes aired by his station. Earlier, Rugurika was accused of "inciting ethnic hatred" after RPA aired a story revealing that an official involved in setting up a truth and reconciliation commission was himself named as an alleged perpetrator in a 1996 UN report on crimes against humanity.

The same day, Patrick Mitabaro, news editor of Radio Isanganiro, a leading private broadcaster, was interrogated for the second time in court for airing an interview in which Burundi Bar Association President Isidore Rufyikiri criticised magistrates for bowing to political influence from the government. In May, Mitabaro was accused of weakening the security of the state after airing an interview with an exiled opposition leader who questioned a government bill ordering all political parties to re-register within six months.

Lawyers who support dissenting colleagues or defend critical journalists are being punished. Rufyikiri was arrested on 27 July and held for nine days after speaking out at a rally in support of a detained colleague.

Another lawyer, François Nyamoya, a spokesperson for the opposition party Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, who has defended RPA journalists for years, has been in prison since his arrest on 29 July. He was accused of tampering with witnesses in a 2004 murder trial. But Human Rights Watch says the charges against Nyamoya were made under the new penal code, which was not on the books when the alleged offense occurred. Nyamoya is also RPA journalist Bob Rugurika's lawyer.

Under this severe repression, lawyers are being arrested simply for talking to journalists. Lawyer Suzanne Bukuru was arrested on 15 July, on charges of "complicity in espionage" after she set up an interview between her clients, complainants in a rape case, and French journalists legally working in Burundi. Bukuru was released on 1 August, with charges pending.

In solidarity, members of the Burundian bar went on strike in late July to support Rufyikiri and Bukuru. Last week, about 70 members of the Burundian bar sat in front of the appeals court to protest Nyamoya's detention.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2009 and 2010, judges were relocated or threatened when their decisions were not favourable to the government or ruling party.

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