A judge in Burundi has jailed more than a dozen police officers, local officials and members of the ruling party's violent youth wing after finding them guilty of extorting migrant workers returning from Tanzania, sources told AFP Saturday.
The verdict was a hopeful milestone in a country where violence connected to the government often goes unpunished, human rights groups said, and could be a sign that such impunity will be less pervasive under new President Evariste Ndayishimiye.
A court in the southern city of Makamba issued jail terms of up to 10 years against 13 defendants -- three police officers, two local officials, one official from the ruling CNDD-FDD political party and seven members of the party's youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure.
"Seven of the defendants... were sentenced to 10 years in prison for extortion accompanied by aggravating circumstances," said a judicial source who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media on the verdict, which was issued Friday.
"Six other defendants were sentenced to five years in prison for extortion while three others, including a police officer, have been acquitted," the source said.
The verdict was confirmed by one of the defence lawyers in the case.
The accused were arrested in mid-July and accused of extorting money from Burundians who were returning from jobs on farms in neighbouring Tanzania.
Human Rights Watch and other organisations have accused the Imbonerakure -- which is often referred to as a militia -- of having killed, tortured and beaten dozens of people during the tumultuous tenure of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in office in June.
The international community is hoping for a softening of the iron-fisted regime under Nkurunziza's ally and successor, Ndayishimiye.
Anschaire Nikoyagize, the president of the Burundian human rights group Iteka, described Friday's verdict as a step in the right direction.
"This is the first time that we see one of these groups made up of officials linked to the government and the Imbonerakure, who have been killing and torturing people with impunity for years, arrested and sentenced," Nikoyagize told AFP.
"We hope it could serve as a lesson for them. When other (members) see that they can start to get worried too," he said.