Burundi court commutes jailed journalist's life term

Burundian RFI journalist Hassan Ruvakuki
This file picture shows Burundian RFI journalist Hassan Ruvakuki in Gitega on October 18, 2012. A Burundi court cut Ruvakuki's jail term from life to three years on January 8, 2012 after he was convicted of planning then documenting a rebel attack in the eastern Cankuzo province of neighbouring Tanzania.   PHOTO | AFP

A Burundian appeal court on Tuesday cut the life sentence of journalist Hassan Ruvakuki to three years, judges said, reducing the charges from terrorism to membership of a gang.

Appeal court judge Fulgence Ruberintwari said the reporter was guilty of "participating in an association formed for the purpose of attacking people and property" and would serve three years in jail.

Ruvakuki, who worked for French radio station RFI's Swahili service and local broadcaster Bonesha FM, was handed a life sentence last June, a ruling condemned by press rights groups.

He was initially convicted of planning an attack by an armed group on the eastern Cankuzo province of neighbouring Tanzania that left dozens dead and spreading news of it afterwards.

Ruvakuki, who was not present in court, has always protested his innocence.

The journalist, whose trial has been closely followed by Bujumbura-based Western diplomats, acknowledged that he travelled to Tanzania to cover the birth of a new rebellion but said he was merely doing his job as a journalist.

His defence lawyers at the appeal hearing in Gitega, central Burundi, worked to discredit the prosecution's evidence, repeatedly denouncing what they said were procedural violations that have plagued the case.

Since general elections in 2010 that were boycotted by the opposition, Burundi has been rocked by violence that has led observers to fear that the eastern African country could be sliding back into conflict.

Burundi's civil conflict claimed nearly 300,000 lives from 1993 to 2006.

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