Burundi Political Activist Jailed

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"I think I say loudly what [others] think quietly," Alexis Sinduhije told an interviewer earlier this year. The activist and former journalist is one of Burundi's most prominent and controversial voices, the founder of his own political party with out-loud ambitions to run for the country's presidency in 2010. In the turbulent Great Lakes region of Africa, where chaotic Congo meets the former genocidal killing fields of Rwanda and Burundi, Sinduhije promised to be a proponent of ethnic reconciliation, a distinction recognized by TIME when it named him one of this year's 100 most influential people in the world. But last week, Burundi's government tried to silence his opinions by first detaining Sinduhije and then, on Nov. 11, charging him with "insulting" the current president. (See a complete list of the 2008 Time 100)

Sinduhije, who had been threatened, jailed and beaten during his career as a journalist, was taken into custody on Nov. 3. He was arrested at the headquarters of his party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD), along with nearly 40 others, who have since been released. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher who was present at the time of the arrests, police also searched Sinduhije's house the following day. The researcher reported that authorities said they suspected party members of "holding an illegal meeting" and "threatening state security." The current charge of "insulting" President Pierre Nkurunziza appears to be based on confiscated documents. HRW says that if convicted, Sinduhije could be sentenced to two to five years in prison. Rights activists and supporters fear he could remain in detention a long time before any trial takes place.

Sinduhije, who is in his early 40s, had been praised for his conciliatory work in Burundi, which like neighboring Rwanda was torn by ethnic strife between Tutsi and Hutu. The fighting resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Burundians over several decades. A Tutsi himself, Sinduhije adopted a Hutu war orphan. The independent Radio Publique Africaine, which he founded in 2001, hired both Hutu and Tutsi ex-combatants as part of its effort to foster peace.

Frederic Ngoga-Gateretse, a security-risk analyst specializing in Africa, says there had been hope for a release on Nov. 11 because of international appeals. Instead Sinduhije was charged and transferred to Mpimba prison. Ngoga-Gateretse, who is also a member of a Burundian opposition party and a friend of Sinduhije, "strongly believes" that high-level government leaders, including President Nkurunziza and General Adolphe Nshimirimana, head of the country's intelligence service, pressured lower-ranking officials not to release Sinduhije. According to Ngoga-Gateretse, who is based in Maryland, Burundian authorities are holding Sinduhije in spite of international pressure. "The problem is," Ngoga-Gateretse writes in an e-mail, "Nkurunziza does not understand the consequences."

The U.S. embassy in Burundi said Sinduhije's detention was "unacceptable" and called for his release. Russell Brooks, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department Bureau of African Affairs, reiterated the American position after Sinduhije was charged. "It remains our hope that the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi, and allow all of its citizens to exercise universally recognized rights." The British government made similar comments in an official statement following the detention, saying it "raises concerns about the ability of Burundians to exercise their civil and political rights."

Burundi's government, however, says it is concerned about security, and that Sinduhije is being treated justly. "I don't think that the reason they arrest him is to scare him or is in connection to the upcoming election," Celestin Niyongabo, the Burundian ambassador to the United States, told TIME. "Burundi is a country emerging from conflict," and given potential security threats, "the police had the right to go and look at what is happening in the house of any citizen." He emphasized that Sinduhije has access to a lawyer. He could not say when the trial would be, but said he hopes "as soon as possible." He noted that Sinduhije has not been physically harmed — an assertion that Sinduhije's supporters have backed up. Burundi, the ambassador declares, remains "committed to human rights."

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