ASF awareness campaign: “Open your eyes to injustice”

Brussels, June 16, 2012 – Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) is launching an awareness campaign on the need to support justice in post-conflict and developing countries. With the slogan “Open your eyes to injustice,” ASF and their campaign serve as a reminder that justice is not only a prerequisite for consolidating peace and fighting poverty, but that respect for human rights is crucial in the everyday life of vulnerable populations.

The establishment of the rule of law is essential for lasting peace and socio-economic development. This idea is representative of the NGO’s work, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. “Without justice, there is no peace. And without peace, there is no access to food, water, health or education,” says Francesca Boniotti, executive director of ASF. “An independent judiciary is crucial in the fundamental rights of everyone. For the most vulnerable people, it is often a matter of survival. ”

This campaign aims to raise awareness in Belgium about the need to support efforts in many developing countries and countries emerging from recent conflict for a more impartial and independent justice. Every day, the rights of vulnerable people such as abused women and minors – child soldiers or those imprisoned with no one to defend them, as well as victims of crimes against humanity or torture, must be defended.

“Through this campaign, we want to remind everyone that justice must be accessible to all. This is an absolutely essential requirement and factor for development, “says Francesca Boniotti. Presented in the form of animated short-films, the stories of Thulesa, Joseph, John and Saber are narrated by members of the ASF teams and are now available on the new ASF website. The campaign is also supported by the publication of advertisements and web banners in the daily Francophone publications, La Libre Belgique and La Dernière Heure.

The ASF campaign, “Open your eyes to injustice” was done with the support of partners (Régie Générale de PublicitéEarthview and E-Frame).

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The OLUCOME Trial: a verdict but no truth

Bujumbura/Brussels, June 7th, 2012- Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) believes that the verdict announced 22May does not reflect the whole truth surrounding the murder of Ernest Manirumva, Vice President of the Burundian civil society group, Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques [OLUCOME]). ASF calls upon the tribunal to clearly explain their decision, which condemned all accused parties, and to allow for an appeal process according to the rules of a fair trial. ASF also insists that a new investigation be opened to identify all plausible suspects.

The 14 people accused of murdering Ernest Manirumva were sentenced by the High Court of Bujumbura to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life. “This sentence does not in any way compensate the victims of this crime, including the NGO OLUCOME,” stated Jean-Charles Paras, ASF Expert on Civil and Political Rights. “We hope that the Burundian justice system will finally give the means to expose the whole truth and truly commit itself to the fight against impunity for crimes against human rights defenders,” he says. However, many doubts exist about the role that each defendant could have played, and especially as to the responsibility of other people who have never been questioned or prosecuted.

For ASF, several important elements of the case in particular should have led to further investigation. The lawyers representing OLUCOME have repeatedly asked during the trial that further investigations (hearings and DNA testing) be carried out but these requests were rejected by the prosecution and the tribunal. The reasons for their refusal remain unknown. In fact, the verdict of 22 May was announced without any of the parties or lawyers present and no detailed justification was communicated. “We are still waiting for their explanation so that the plaintiffs can establish an appeal strategy because we believe that the real perpetrators do not fear being held accountable,” explains Jean-Charles Paras.

Since the trial began in July 2010 (cfr. picture), ASF, along with the lawyer hired by OLUCOME, has supported the organization of civil defense of the parties as well as the direct involvement of Mr. Alexis Deswaef, member of the Brussels Bar, supported by a member of the “pool” of ASF lawyers in Burundi.

Ernest Manirumva was found beaten to death on April 9th, 2009, outside his home. OLUCOME has been investigating for years several cases of economic malpractice and corruption linked to high authorities of the country. Continue reading “The OLUCOME Trial: a verdict but no truth”

ASF calls upon Flemish lawyers for support

Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) actively participated in the 2012 Flemish Lawyer’s Day,which was held May 11th in Kortrijk. The event, which targeted lawyers in Flanders, was the perfect opportunity to better communicate the activities of ASF. The lawyers were also called upon to support action in favor of more accessible justice to the most vulnerable people in the Global South.

ASF was created exactly 20 years ago by a group of Belgian and international lawyers.  Therefore, it made sense that the NGO decided to address its “historic” audience at the Lawyer’s Daywhere the central theme was “lawyer: a borderless profession.”

After the day officially began, ASF was introduced to around 190 lawyers by Mr. Patrick Berben, former president of the bar of Hasselt.  “I think every lawyer should become a member of ASF,” he declared, before giving the floor to Chantal Van Cutsem, ASF coordinator for the Great Lakes region.  The speech began by demystifying ASF.  “With 130 workers in a dozen countries, we aim to make a lasting impact on the justice system,” she explained; she proceeded by outlining the central role lawyers can have within the work of the NGO.  “If the lawyer is at times the victim, he is also the creator of growth, the defendant, or even the creator of rights.”

After this presentation, lawyers visited the ASF stand, where they could meet members of the team.  The stand was offered by the organization of the Flemish Bar to support ASF. “I was aware of ASF, but I did not know exactly what they did,” said a lawyer from Brugge.  “I would like to become a member of your organization,” said another lawyer from Ieper.

The presence of ASF on this day provided a more personal setting to inform lawyers on the actual work of the NGO.  “Each donation, small or large, counts.  They are what allow us to work independently and to help with meeting the needs for justice.  We look forward to returning to the next Lawyer’s Day,” concluded Chantal Van Cutsem.

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Tunisia: ASF supports recognition of Human Rights violations

Tunis/Brussels – April 12, 2012. Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) is starting its activities in support of justice in Tunisia, cradle of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. The NGO is helping eight Tunisian associations to archive and to categorize several thousand case files on human rights violations. ASF’s action will allow better utilization of the data collected in these case files and, thus, support  the Tunisian society’s transition in terms of justice.

One year after the revolution, the feeling of impunity remains present in Tunisia. The population is demanding that justice be done, and the victims or their families are seeking compensation for the crimes they were subjected to: offenses against rights and fundamental liberties, repression of opponents, brutal oppression of the demonstrations before and during the 2011 revolution, mainly by the authorities.

The challenge today in Tunisia is to put in place mechanisms of transitional justice adapted to the situation: how to judge the perpetrators of violations? How to officialize the status of victims? How to indemnify them? “In this context, the needs of the victims and the expectations of the population must be taken into account while at the same time guaranteeing equitable judgment of the perpetrators of the violations,” explains Solène Rougeaux, head of the ASF mission in Tunis. “The objective is to reach a genuine reconciliation of the different elements of the society.”

© A. du Boistesselin
© A. du Boistesselin

One important factor in this process is the existence of reliable data on human rights violations committed in the past. Yet, while the Tunisian associations were very active in denouncing human rights violations and in assisting the victims under the regime of President Ben Ali, they were unable to systematically archive their case files. In fact, the political opponents and human rights activists suffered repression from the regime, and the work of the NGOs took place in an oppressive and often dangerous climate. The number of case files varies from one organization to another from hundreds to several million.

Financed by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the ASF’s project began in March of this year with a training organized in partnership with the NGO Swisspeace on the basic principles of archive management. The next stage of the project will consist of sorting the case files and encoding the data contained therein. This phase is starting in April and will last for two months.

“We are not only helping the associations to physically organize their archives but also to enter the relevant data in a database,” adds Solène Rougeaux. This database will focus on the types of violations suffered by the victims and committed by the State as well as by individuals. The goal is to have a general overview of the types of abuses that took place under the dictatorship as well as the expectations of the victims in terms of compensation, support, and justice. Moreover, this database will allow for a summary of the victims of violations based on geographic, gender and age data. “This will allow the local associations to make up their lost time under the former regime and to be more efficient in their advocacy in favor of transitional justice mechanisms in Tunisia,” concludes the head of the ASF mission. Continue reading “Tunisia: ASF supports recognition of Human Rights violations”

To the 500 legal professionals working alongside ASF: thank you!

Brussels, 27 March 2012 – The International Legal Network (ILN), the international network of lawyers created by ASF in 2010, is pleased to welcome its 500th member. The arrival of this new member demonstrates the solidarity of legal professionals in support of those assisted by ASF. Based on the principle of pro bono intervention, the ILN has become an essential force in developing the organisation’s activities. Its success rests largely on the persistent and tenacious work of its members.

Over the past two years, the ILN has contributed to ASF’s work through 63 interventions in a dozen countries, by training local lawyers, providing legal assistance, following trials, and carrying out legal research. Carried out locally or from a distance, these missions constitute more than 400 days of work “donated” to ASF. As demonstration of the growing diversity of the ILN, the network’s members originate from over 60 countries in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with interests and experience levels that are both varied and complementary.

“We involve members in our projects according to their domain of expertise. Their actions allow us to increase the impact of our work locally and to provide local lawyers with specialised supervision”, ILN Coordinator Catherine Lalonde says.

ILN interventions also bring lawyers in contact with the reality on the field (the women’s prison in Gitega, Burundi, by Charlotte Verhaeghe)
ILN interventions also bring lawyers in contact with the reality on the field (the women’s prison in Gitega, Burundi, by Charlotte Verhaeghe)

This ethos of legal professionals from all backgrounds sharing their experiences and collaborating is the heart of ASF and ILN’s work. Coaching is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works: for example, Burundian and Rwandan lawyers were recently able to benefit from ILN members who helped them to manage and take on complex cases, such as those involving sexual violence, torture, freedom of expression infringements, and illegal preventative detention. This coaching mechanism is an innovative needs-based approach.

“The enthusiasm of our local colleagues is huge, but the means available to them are generally limited”, explains Charlotte Verhaeghe. A lawyer from the Brussels Bar, who worked for a coaching mission in Burundi, she elaborates: “By coaching these lawyers throughout their cases, ASF is really making a difference”.

With the need for help continually evolving, the ILN has to constantly enrich its network with new skills and expertise. “In addition to more traditional skills, we are looking for Arabic-speaking lawyers specialising in international human rights, lawyers experienced in negotiating, and criminal lawyers with special in-depth knowledge of transitional justice procedures”, Catherine Lalonde adds.

ASF would like to wholeheartedly thank the 500 members of the ILN network who support ASF’s work and, through their actions, contribute to making the law a force for durable change for the most vulnerable people.

Join the ILN

Mr Alexis Deswaef, ILN member, during the Olucome trial in Burundi © Jean-Marie Ndikumana/ASF
Mr Alexis Deswaef, ILN member, during the Olucome trial in Burundi © Jean-Marie Ndikumana/ASF
Continue reading “To the 500 legal professionals working alongside ASF: thank you!”

Lubanga trial: ASF welcomes the first judgment of the International Criminal Court

Brussels/The Hague, 14 March 2012 – Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) welcomes today’s decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to declare Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of war crimes.

First person detained and accused before the ICC, the Congolese ex-war lord has been held responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers into the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) and for their active participation in the hostilities in eastern DR Congo. “This first ruling of the ICC is also acknowledgement of the victims’ rights”, ASF is pleased to announce.

More than 30,000 children have been abducted or recruited by the different armed groups active in the Congo between 1998 and 2008. These children have been mistreated during training, sent into combat and the girls have been used as sex slaves by commanders. In addition to the violence suffered, these child soldiers are often seen as criminals instead of victims by the communities – including sometimes their own families – who have suffered from their violent acts.

“The acknowledgement of Mr Lubanga’s culpability by the ICC is a clear message that such acts will not go unpunished”, ASF Executive Director Francesca Boniotti declared with satisfaction following the judgment. “This decision is also a victory for the victims, as their voice is now heard and their suffering has been acknowledged”.

From the beginning of the enquiry leading up to the “Lubanga” trial, ASF’s intervention alongside Congolese associations has been in helping to identify child soldier victims, explaining to them what is at stake through their participation in the trial, and in providing the assistance necessary to file application for participation to the trial. ASF has also ensured the intervention of lawyers and has put everything in place to ensure the safety of the victims. At the end of this pre-trial phase, the ICC – the first permanent international criminal tribunal – has, for the first time since its creation in 2002, officially acknowledged 12 minors initially assisted by ASF as victims; this enabled them to benefit from free legal assistance. In total, 123 victims are participating in the “Lubanga” trial, 101 of which are adults who have suffered from the FPLC’s violent acts.

Aside from expressing the suffering they have experienced, the victims are no longer considered as a mere element of proof. Those represented in the “Lubanga” case have been able to contribute to establishing the truth through the right to access, evaluate and contest evidence provided by both the prosecution and defence, as well as attesting to the crimes committed.

Suspected of having committed war crimes in the early 2000s, Mr Lubanga, ex-Commander in Chief of the FPLC, was arrested in March 2005 and was then transferred from the DR Congo to The Hague where the ICC has its seat.

Having been kept aside from the debates until the creation of the ICC, victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes finally have a role in the international justice system. ASF remains mobilised, to ensure that the victims’ hopes placed in the ICC are not disappointed. “Today’s ruling is only the first step. We now await the decision on sentencing and any compensation for the damage suffered”, says Francesca Boniotti. “This decision will serve as an important test for judging the efficiency of the international justice system”.

Read the full press statement (pdf in French)

Read more about ASF’s International justice programme Continue reading “Lubanga trial: ASF welcomes the first judgment of the International Criminal Court”

“The Chebeya affair”: Justice on the big screen

Brussels, 29 February 2012 – Upon release of the documentary The Cheyeba affair. Duty of Justice today in Belgian theaters, Avocats Sans Frontières  reemphasises the need for impartial justice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel, the film examines the trial of those accused of being responsible for the death of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya. ASF stresses that the importance of this ongoing trial should not undermine the right to a fair trial for both the families of victims and the accused.

Besides the interests of the families of the victims (Mr. Chebeya and his driver), the Chebeya case has a strong symbolic value. Partly due to the prominence of the Congolese human rights activist (Chebeya headed the NGO “Voice of the Voiceless”), this value is mainly because of the challenges in achieving justice in the present Congolese justice system. “This trial must continue without any potential pressure on the part of the State, civil society and the parties concerned “, said Francesca Boniotti, Executive Director of Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF). The material and legal resources available must allow the circumstances of Mr. Chebeya’s death to be ascertained, as well as any potential personal liabilities. Finally, the proceedings must be carried out in such a way as to guarantee the legitimate interests and rights of all parties without exception, both within the prosecution and the defense.

Mr. Chebeya was found dead in his car on 2 June 2010 in Kinshasa. The body of his driver, Fidele Bazana, has still not been found. ASF expressed its disappointment following the issuance of death sentences for some of the accused in the first verdict given in June 2011 by the military court in charge of the case.

Following this first judgment, the trial is now at the appeal stage and the investigation will be carried out again. ASF is directly involved in the procedure, with the organization defending the interests of the prosecuting parties (including the brothers of Chebeya).

Due to this involvement, ASF cannot comment on the details of the case. However, “we have been committed to the fight against impunity in DR Congo for the past ten years, but the quest for the truth matters more to us than a decision at any cost”, said Francesca Boniotti.

For film director Thierry Michel (Congo River, Katanga Business,…), this movie on the Chebeya affair will “substantially contribute to educating and raising awareness on the issues of justice, conflict resolution and […] peace between the political actors and the different layers of the Congolese and African population.”

Avocats Sans Frontières is participating in several evening debates organized by various bar associations, following the release of the film in Brussels and other Belgian cities.

For more information on the film

For more on ASF in DR Congo Continue reading ““The Chebeya affair”: Justice on the big screen”

ASF uses innovative ways of reaching out to vulnerable groups in Nepal

Mahendra Nagar, 6 February 2012 – It is freezing cold this morning in Far Western Nepal. Gopi Parajuli (ASF) and Anita Neupane (Legal Aid and Consultancy Centre) try to find their way through the bus station. In a typically helpful and gentle manner, a passer-by asks them: “Are you looking for the lawyer’s bus? There it is!” And he points towards a small vehicle with a message painted on it.  It is a so called ‘microbus’, of the kind used by thousands of ordinary Nepali every day to commute to work. The message on its side says: “Are you legally vulnerable because of your economic situation? Please contact the Kanchanpur District Bar Association”.

Kanchanpur is an isolated district with a high incidence of poverty, especially among women. A significant proportion of the population is from the Dalit group, on the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. Human rights denials are common here; domestic violence, discrimination and abuses by local authorities are widespread.

In Kanchanpur and four other districts, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) helps Bar Associations to provide free legal aid services to the population. The local lawyers are very committed to improving access to justice, but data collected recently by ASF in Nepal suggests that people are not aware of these services and that the first challenge is to help them find their way to the legal aid providers.

“That is why, since december 2011, we make use of innovative ways to make the population aware of their rights and and advise them how to obtain justice”, explains Julie Fournier, Head of Mission in Nepal. “That includes the use of radio programs, advertisements on public transport and microphones installed on rickshaws that go around the weekly market to convey the ASF message.”

Gopi and Anita are satisfied: the advert on the bus looks good and people already seem to be familiar with it. Now they can start thinking of new original ideas to pass on ASF’s message.

A villager reading the message “Are you legally vulnerable because of your economic situation? Please contact the Kanchanpur District Bar Association” © ASF - J. Fournier
A villager reading the message “Are you legally vulnerable because of your economic situation? Please contact the Kanchanpur District Bar Association” © ASF – J. Fournier

More information on the ASF action in Nepal Continue reading “ASF uses innovative ways of reaching out to vulnerable groups in Nepal”

The Fight Against Impunity Continues in Guatemala

Guatemala City / Brussels – Avocats Sans Frontières is pleased with the prosecution of former Guatemalan ruler (1982-83), José Efraín Ríos Montt, an encouraging development in the fight against the impunity for international crimes. Suspected of having given orders for multiple massacres during his time in power, Ríos Montt  was ordered to appear in court on 26 January.

After three months of sharing power in a military junta, on June 1982, Ríos Montt forced the two other (military) leaders from the junta to resign, and became the sole political leader, head of the Armed Forces, and Minister of Defense. His regime was characterised by human rights violations, mass murders and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of mainly indigenous Guatemalans.

The appearance of Ríos Montt before court marks the first formal step in an historical process in Guatemala dealing with the accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity that took place during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina, has confirmed its commitment to the fight against impunity; following a favorable vote in Congress, Pérez Molina stated his government’s commitment to ratify the Rome Statute. This statute is the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a unique, independent, permanent tribunal which tries people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

José Ríos Montt wih his defense attorneys © ASF-Canada Greg Krupa
José Ríos Montt wih his defense attorneys © ASF-Canada Greg Krupa

Avocats Sans Frontières-Canada assists in the court hearings in the Ríos Montt case. In cooperation with Avocats Sans Frontières in Brussels, the team develops monitoring activities for its programmes aimed at the fight against impunity and international justice in Guatemala and Colombia. 

Follow the Ríos Montt case via ASF-Canada’s blog. Continue reading “The Fight Against Impunity Continues in Guatemala”

Avocats Sans Frontières gets support from Antwerp lawyers

Antwerp/Brussels – Solicitor General Mr Grootjans recently handed over a cheque for 20,000 Euros to Avocats Sans Frontières President Hafida Talhaoui. This donation concretises the valuable support which the lawyers of Antwerp have given to ASF for almost ten years.

When the cheque was awarded on December 13th, Solicitor General Dirk Grootjans, who heads the Antwerp Bar, renewed his support for ASF. ‘I think there is nothing more poignant than a citizen who feels that he or she cannot exercise his or her rights. This creates an incredible feeling of injustice’, he said. ‘That is why we are convinced as to the importance of private initiatives that promote access to justice for all. The Bar is clearly in a good position to support these projects’.

‘With this donation the Antwerp lawyers are demonstrating their solidarity with their colleagues in the countries where ASF is active’, said Ms Talhaoui, thanking the Bar. ‘This financial contribution allows us to further develop our different projects that support professional development of lawyers and bar associations locally’.

In Nepal, for example, where ASF has opened a new permanent mission, the legal profession faces a number of challenges. Lawyers need ongoing training in order to improve the legal services provided to the population. ASF organises training sessions on critical issues, such as legal aid for minors and the fight against torture.

ASF President Hafida Talhaoui and Solicitor General Grootjans © ASF
ASF President Hafida Talhaoui and Solicitor General Grootjans © ASF

ASF regularly receives financial support from numerous Belgian Bar associations. In addition to individual donations, this support is a key complementary source of funding for ASF which programmes are essentially funded by institutional donors.

For more information on ASF

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