Last week, civil society in Burundi breathed a collective sigh of relief at the announcement that five human rights defenders charged with state security crimes had been released from prison. But as is often the case in Burundi, their relief was short-lived. Four days later, an appeals court in Bujumbura confirmed the conviction of journalist Floriane Irangabiye.
Irangabiye was convicted in January on charges of criticizing the government during a radio broadcast, in defiance of her most basic media freedoms. Her conviction came less than a week after lawyer and former human rights defender Tony Germain Nkina was released following two years of unjust imprisonment.
Irangabiye was given a 10-year sentence and fined 1,000,000 Burundian Francs (US$480). Her months-long detention without charge and the prosecutor’s failure to produce credible evidence of a crime during the trial amounted to flagrant violations of Burundian and international law.
Adding insult to injury, the appeals court’s decision was announced on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, underscoring Burundian authorities’ contempt for freedom of the press.
The five rights defenders released last week were charged with rebellion and undermining state security and the functioning of public finances. The charges appeared to stem from their relationship with a foreign organization and the funding they received from it. Three were acquitted and two were convicted of rebellion, fined 50.000 Burundian Francs ($25), and handed a two-year suspended sentence. They work for some of Burundi’s few remaining human rights organizations, and their arrests sent a chilling message to the few activists who stayed in Burundi despite a brutal crackdown against civil society triggered by the country’s 2015 political crisis.
As Burundi, faced with serious economic and humanitarian challenges, is pressing international partners to restore financial assistance, it seems reckless to jeopardize the government’s relationship with donors over abusive arrests and trials of human rights defenders and journalists. Yet after repeated convictions and acquittals, it looks increasingly like they are being used as bargaining chips.
Burundi should put an end to this cynical game. The European Union, the United States, and Burundi’s other international partners should call for Irangabiye’s immediate and unconditional release. They should also make clear, through public statements and concrete demands, that their trust in Burundian authorities will only be restored once they truly respect the rights of media and civil society.