Four journalists imprisoned for a year in Burundi on charges that rights groups condemned as baseless have been released after receiving a presidential pardon, according to a decree seen Thursday by AFP.
The journalists were working for IWACU, the isolated African country's last independent media outlet, when they were arrested in Bubanza province in October 2019 while covering an incursion of rebels from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Agnes Ndirubusa, Christine Kamikazi, Egide Harerimana and Terence Mpozenzi were charged with threatening state security and sentenced in January to 2½ years in prison, a verdict upheld on appeal in June.
But they were pardoned by a decree signed Wednesday by President Evariste Ndayishimiye, who was elected in May.
IWACU's founder and head, Antoine Kubarahe, said their release was "a great relief."
"These four colleagues, I repeat, were guilty of nothing. They were doing their job," he told AFP.
"I am happy they will be reunited with their families on Christmas Eve," he added, thanking the "great outpouring of support in Burundi and around the world" for their cause.
"May their freedom open a new chapter for Burundi's media," he said.
The European Union's ambassador to Burundi, Claude Bochu, tweeted that the pardon was a "relief and an excellent sign for the new year!"
The EU has imposed sanctions on Burundi since 2015, but their relationship has been warming of late.
Ndayishimiye's election had raised hopes for a more open political environment in Burundi after 15 years of Pierre Nkurunziza, whose rule was marked by violence and brutality against dissidents. Nkurunziza died in June.
In October, 65 human rights groups issued a joint statement demanding the journalists be released.
"Their continued detention on baseless charges is a stark reminder that, despite a recent change in leadership, the Burundian government has little tolerance for independent journalism," the group said.
On Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom index, Burundi ranks 160th out of 180 in the world.