Following 15 months of brilliant campaigning, Hassan Ruvakuki was finally freed by the government of Burundi. Hassan was arrested in November 2011 after covering a story in Tanzania for Radio France Internationale. He was first charged with terrorism and sentenced to life in prison but on appeal, the charge was downgraded to "participating in an association formed for the purpose of attacking people and property" but still given a three year jail sentence.
From then on, court proceedings turned into a grotesque farce as judges refused him parole using the pretext that he may appeal and denying his lawyers notice of what’s been cooked up.
Suddenly on March 6th, the authorities released Hassan stressing that this was for health reasons only.
It was indeed a great victory for his supporters worldwide, his colleagues at home and in France, and his union, an IFJ affiliate, which mounted a formidable campaign to get him released.
However the judicial persecution of Hassan is far from over. It is not a coincidence that while the Burundian authorities ignored the international outrage, the strong petitioning effort and the powerful mobiisation of journalists by the union, they moved swiftly to release him only days before their president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was due to visit France. The danger that the judges will have a go again still lurks.
One thing is certain. His colleagues, his union and the IFJ will be there again to stand up with him. In fact the campaign mounted by the Union Burundaise des Journalistes was tremendous and effective. Its weekly protests were perceived by the authorities as a major threat and they moved swiftly to attack and intimidate the assembled journalists with tear gas and baton charges.
The campaign had also a huge resonance among IFJ unions which played a major role in pressurising the Burundian government. The UBJ demonstrated with its determination and campaigning skills that, when journalists combine together in unions, they can stand up to some of the most repressive authorities to defend their social and professional rights and they can win no matter their size or their resources.