A court in Burundi on Thursday sentenced four journalists to two and a half years in prison after they were convicted on charges of trying to undermine state security.
One of their lawyers, Martin Ndayisaba, told journalists they will appeal the decision of the court in Bubanza Province. They have 30 days to do so.
The journalists are with Iwacu, one of the few remaining private media organizations in the East African nation.
The authorities must quash the conviction and sentences, and the four journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released.
They were arrested in October in Musigati district in the western province while covering the aftermath of clashes between the army and a rebel group from South Kivu in neighboring Congo.
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government has cracked down on the media ahead of this year’s election in May. Several local radio stations and media houses have been closed and many journalists have fled the country.
The government suspended broadcasts in Burundi by Voice of America and the BBC. Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with Iwacu, has been missing since July 2016.
Burundi has been plagued by political violence since 2015, when Nkurunziza announced he would seek a disputed third term. He won re-election despite widespread protests, and the United Nations says more than 1,200 people have been killed in the ensuing crackdown.
Nkurunziza has said he will not run again and the ruling party recently named an army general as its candidate for the election.
Amnesty International said the conviction and jail sentences for the journalists “on trumped-up charges marks a sad day for the right to freedom of expression and press freedom in Burundi,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa.
“The authorities must quash the conviction and sentences, and the four journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released. … The Burundian authorities must ensure that every journalist in the country can work freely, without fear of arrest, harassment or intimidation, particularly ahead of upcoming elections.”