Bujumbura: Burundi has sentenced a top opposition chief to five years in jail or bribery and arrested another for rebel links, opposition leaders said Friday, accusing Bujumbura eliminating rivals before elections.
Action against the two leaders comes amid growing fears of the risk of violence ahead of elections, with a string of attacks including a five-day battle earlier this month between the army and rebels.
The two leaders are the latest of several politicians to face criminal charges ahead of the key polls in May and June, which the opposition say is the government`s way to block them from running for seats.
Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, a former Burundian vice-president and current deputy leader of the Front for Democracy (Frodebu) party, was sentenced Thursday to five years in jail for bribery following a sex scandal.
He told AFP the sentence by the country`s anti-corruption court was made to "remove me from the electoral race".
Meanwhile Frodebu youth leader Patrick Nkurunziza was arrested on Thursday, the most prominent figure held in connection with a rebel force that entered the country from neighbouring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month.
The army, who said they killed around 100 of the rebels, say documents they seized showed the insurgents had planned a major offensive to destabilise the country.
But opposition politicians and critics say the government is doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of the elections, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.
Burundi, a small nation in central Africa`s Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war and its political climate remains fractious ahead of the polls.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, is expected to run for a third term in office despite opponents` claims that a new mandate would violate Burundi`s constitution.
Burundi`s last elections in 2010 were boycotted by most opposition parties, and opponents are again accusing the ruling CNDD-FDD party of eliminating dissent.
Patrick Nkurunziza, who is also the youth head of the main opposition coalition, Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), was arrested on a warrant for "complicity with the armed bandits", police said, without giving further details.
Bamvuginyumvira, a highly respected leader with a reputation for being tough on graft, was Burundi`s vice president from 1998 to 2001. He had been touted as one of the most serious potential opposition presidential candidates.
But he was arrested in December 2013 "while having sex... in a house of ill repute" and was later charged with trying to bribe a police officer to escape, charges he has denied. He remains free pending an appeal.
The sentence was condemned by fellow opposition politicians, including Leonce Ngendakumana, Frodebu president and head of the main coalition opposition Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), who was himself sentenced in September to a year in jail for slander.
"The intentions of Bujumbura are very clear, they want to eliminate the opposition before the 2015 elections," said Ngendakumana, who remains free from jail pending an appeal.
"The government wants to go alone in the elections," he added.
Ngendakumana was found guilty of slander for accusing the ruling CNDD-FDD of preparations similar to those in neighbouring Rwanda before the genocide of 1994.
Frodebu won the 1993 general elections, bringing to power the country`s first elected president Melchior Ndadaye.
Ndadaye was assassinated a few months later, triggering a brutal civil war that ended in 2006.