WASHINGTON - A Burundi opposition leader was charged yesterday in Bujumbura with contempt for the president, despite strong condemnation of his arrest last week by State Department officials and human rights groups in the United States.
Alexis Sinduhije, a former radio journalist who has defied threats to his life for years, was a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1997 and was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people this year.
"This is a purely political matter. It has nothing to do with the law," Sinduhije's lawyer Prosper Niyoyankana said yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported. "Alexis Sinduhije, like other political prisoners in this country, is being punished by the government for their criticism" of the regime.
Sinduhije was arrested in Bujumbura on Nov. 3 with 37 other founding members of the Movement for Security and Democracy, a newly-created opposition party dedicated to reaching out to both Hutu and Tutsi citizens in a country plagued by civil war and ethnic violence. The State Department called last week for their immediate release.
The others were freed last week, according to news reports. But the case against Sinduhije, a contender for Burundi's presidential election in 2010, appears to be going forward. It is based on documents allegedly criticizing Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza that were found in his home, according to press reports citing his lawyer.
The news has sparked anguish and dismay at Harvard, where several specialists on journalism and human rights have followed Sinduhije's career.
"I very much hope that wisdom and cooler heads will prevail and he will be released quickly," said Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School. "He is very highly regarded as a journalist. His core values are ones of telling the truth."
Sinduhije, 43, became a celebrated national figure - and an international hero - when he founded an independent radio station in 2001 that encouraged reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi Burundians. At his radio station, Radio Publique Africaine, he put former soldiers from both the Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities to work as journalists covering the country's attempt to heal from years of civil war.
Sinduhije has been threatened, beaten, and arrested repeatedly throughout his years as a journalist. The government banned his station in 2003 for airing an interview with a spokesman for an armed rebel group. But the ban was lifted days later, when other stations boycotted government news until it was lifted. The same year, unidentified assailants fired at his home, killing his night watchman in an alleged assassination attempt, according to a 2004 State Department report on human rights practices.
In 2005, the government suspended his radio station for 48 hours for "offending public morals" by reporting the rape of an 8-year-old girl and threatening public security by "deforming" the words of Tutsi politician and former president Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a 2006 State Department human rights report said.
Sinduhije frequently spoke of the time he spent interviewing African-Americans in Boston and New York as the most challenging thing he had ever done, former colleagues said. He was stunned by their lack of knowledge of his homeland and called the research into what African-Americans know of Africa as "the most difficult task of my career," according to a research paper he wrote for the Shorenstein Center.
In 2004, Sinduhije received the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year, he left journalism to found a new political party, and announced his intention to run for president. The move earned him a place on Time magazine's list of influential people.