Over the last couple of weeks I have visited my friend, Bob Rugurika, in prison three times. When I first saw him on January 21 in Bujumbura’s Mpimba prison, he gave me a big hug and joked, “It’s not safe to be visiting a murderer!”
A young journalist and director of the popular Burundian radio station Radio publique africaine (RPA), Rugurika is one of the first people analysts reach out to for the media take on the latest events in Burundi.
Rugurika was arrested on January 20, days after his radio station aired reports into the September 2014 murder of three Italian nuns. One of the broadcasts included an interview with a man who said he had participated in the murder and implicated senior intelligence and security officials.
Rugurika has been charged with conspiracy to murder, violating confidentiality in criminal investigations, harboring a criminal, and failing to uphold “public solidarity.” Judicial authorities showed no evidence that his detention was necessary to investigate these seemingly absurd charges. Yesterday, in a disappointing decision, the pretrial court chamber ruled that Rugurika should stay in jail until his trial begins. I was shocked when I read the court’s justification: to “preserve evidence, prevent a fraudulent consultation between the accused and complete the investigation.”
The ruling would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that Rugurika is still behind bars and could face a heavy sentence. Rugurika’s imprisonment seems to be a blatant attempt to silence the media as the country heads into a tense period before elections beginning in May. Imprisoning one of the country’s most popular voices kills two birds with one stone: it silences Rugurika and sends a chilling message to other journalists. Burundi’s precious democratic gains are at risk with this assault on the press.
Two days after his arrest, the authorities transferred Rugurika to Muramvya prison, about 30 kilometers from the capital, in what has been widely described as a crude attempt to frighten him and make him feel isolated. But it didn’t work. Visitors have streamed in, including high-level diplomats such as the European Union, French, and Belgian ambassadors.
Rugurika has kept his sense of humor and was in high spirits when I last saw him. He told me he was confident that the huge international pressure – alerts from international human rights organizations, appeals from Belgian parliamentarians, calls for his release by the European Union and others – would ensure his freedom. I shared his confidence, and cannot imagine his disappointment yesterday. But Bob told me that even if he was kept in detention, he would not cave in: “That’s just what they want!” he said. “I was doing my job as a journalist and they arrested me. If I accept that I am guilty, then I should just give up my profession. If I am not a journalist, then I am nothing and they will have won.”