Combating prison overcrowding and illegal detentions in the Democratic Republic of Congo

This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In December 2022, according to official figures provided by the prison administration, the prison population in the 142 prisons in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) totalled 44,536. People incarcerated in the DRC are victims of serious violations of their fundamental rights, in particular those relating to respect for procedural guarantees and the right to dignified conditions of detention that comply with international standards. Around 70% of them are awaiting trial. In 4 of the country’s main central prisons (Kinshasa, Goma, Matadi and Mbuji-Mayi), the average overcrowding rate is 720%.

This alarming level of overcrowding in detention centres can be explained by the abusive use of preventive detention, slowness and administrative obstacles, structural dysfunctions in the country’s judicial, penitentiary and security systems, the absence of a legal aid system guaranteeing access to a lawyer, the lack of qualified staff, an insufficient budget and too limited access to bail.
These structural dysfunctions disproportionately affect people in vulnerable situations, particularly those in vulnerable socio-economic situations.

In response, ASF, in partnership with local partners, is strengthening access to justice for the most vulnerable populations in detention in the DRC. In 2022, ASF worked in close collaboration with the Bar Associations and civil society organisations active in the prison environment, and intervened in 8 central prisons in 6 provinces (Kinshasa, Ituri, Kongo Central, Kasaï, Kasaï Oriental, and Nord Kivu).

  • 1,820 detainees were identified, met and referred to the appropriate services during prison monitoring visits.
  • ASF and its partners guaranteed access to first-line legal aid (via free legal consultations offered by the Bureaux de Consultation Gratuites des Barreaux) to 3,511 people in detention.
  • 2,162 adult detainees and children in situations of placement in penitentiary centres received free legal assistance from a lawyer and 19 people in serious situations of vulnerability and/or psycho-medico-social vulnerability received psychosocial support after their release.
  • ASF’s interventions provided capacity building and technical support to 92 lawyers and monitors in Congolese prisons.

However, the scope of ASF and its partners’ intervention remains limited given the structural nature and magnitude of the problem of prison overcrowding in the DRC. Coordinated institutional reforms are necessary. These include the need to put in place effective and credible control and accountability mechanisms, as well as to offer complementary multi-sector services to detainees. ASF and its partners are raising awareness in order to promote extra-judicial conflict resolution mechanisms and the use of local justice mechanisms to deal with minor or benign offences in order to combat the endemic prison overcrowding in the DRC.

ASF’s Euro-mediterranean regional hub

This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In 2018, ASF launched a regional hub in the Euro-Mediterranean region, based in Tunis, with the aim of pooling resources and strengthening and harmonising its action in the region. The innovative aspect of the regional office is to fully assume the historical, economic, political and cultural links that exist between the two shores of the Mediterranean, and to take them into account in order to put in place action at regional level that is coherent and efficient.

The Euromed Hub is made up of five members and the country directors for Morocco and Tunisia. It collects and analyses data from the field in order to guide decision-making processes at national and European level. The hub provides strategic guidance to the region’s offices and identifies opportunities for developing and consolidating partnership networks at both national and regional level. The hub also provides technical support to the country offices in terms of financial management and human resources.

Three eminently transnational and global issues, which in their own way shape relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean, have been identified as thematic priorities for the region:

a)            Migration: all the countries to the south of the Mediterranean are countries of origin (Tunisia, Morocco) and transit (Algeria, Libya) for migrants. On the European side, migration is taking up an inordinate amount of space in the public debate, and the policies implemented by the European Union and its member states flout the fundamental rights of migrants.

b)            Freedom and security: the fight against terrorism and violent extremism can give rise to public policies that restrict freedoms and civic space and hinder democratic transitions and people’s fundamental freedoms. This is true for the south and the north of the Mediterranean Sea, where a proliferation of exceptions to the principle of the rule of law for health and security reasons is threatening the “consolidated democracies” of the European continent.

c)          Combating the impunity of economic actors: economic interests maintain a system of dependence from the south to the north of the Mediterranean. The conduct of European economic players in Africa has a major impact on increasing social inequalities and on the environment, and can sometimes be a determining factor in conflict (at local, national and international level).

ASF’s annual report is available!

The Avocats Sans Frontières team is delighted to present its latest annual report.

We have come a long way since ASF was founded in 1992 by a group of Belgian lawyers. Over these 30 years, hundreds of people have contributed to making the organisation what it is today: a militant organisation active in a dozen countries, working to promote access to justice and the rule of law based on human rights, in close collaboration with local actors.

These thirty years of action, the local roots we have developed and the links we have forged with human rights defenders from the four corners of the world give us a great deal of strength and confidence as we look to the future and continue to deploy impactful action in the service of populations in vulnerable situations (women, children, the LGBTQI+ community, ethnic minorities, people in detention, people in migration, etc.).

But the challenges are many. All over the world, civil society organisations and human rights defenders are faced with worrying developments and trends: the rise of authoritarianism, the shrinking of civic space, growing public distrust of institutions, heightened social tensions, etc.

Defenders of human rights and access to justice have to work in contexts that are increasingly hostile to them. The very notions of human rights and the rule of law are being called into question. Activists, lawyers and journalists working to defend the fundamental rights of populations in vulnerable situations are increasingly systematically targeted by repressive policies.

Every page of this report bears witness to the vigour of the flame that drives those who are committed to upholding human rights at the very heart of our societies, at the risk and peril of their own freedom. This report is a tribute to each and every one of them.

Witchcraft representations and judicial treatment of the offence of Charlatanism and Witchcraft Practices in the Central African Republic

Pénalisation des Pratiques de charlatanisme et sorcellerie en République centrafricaine

Witchcraft, an omnipresent element of centrafrican culture and society

In the Central African Republic (CAR), witchcraft is omnipresent: it dominates and shapes the daily life of the population, especially in rural areas. Witchcraft representations, which are an integral part of Central African customs and practices, provide an explanatory framework for all life events: death, illness, accidents, professional or academic failures, etc. The successive crises that have shaken the country since 2013 have reinforced the use of witchcraft as an explanation for the diverse misfortunes the popluation has experienced. An increased involvment of religious bodies in the ‘fight’ against witchcraft has also been noted during that perido.

In the Central African Penal Code, Articles 149 and 150 condemn ‘charlatanism or witchcraft practices likely to disturb public order or harm people or property’, including practices that cause ‘serious injury or permanent disability’ or ‘death’. Accusations of witchcraft, based on these two vague and imprecise articles, are very common and frequently lead to an outburst of violence by popular vindictiveness against the accused person: exclusion, lynching, or even, in the worst case, brutal execution. These allegations are used to get rid of people who have become undesirable in the community and disproportionately affect the vulnerable and isolated, especially elderly women.

The judicial treatment of the offence of charlatanism and witchcraft practices

The legal vagueness surrounding charlatanism and witchcraft practices (CWP) is acknowledged by most actors in the Central African judiciary and is a breeding ground for arbitrary decision-making. Judges tend to rely on their own convictions and beliefs when dealing with witchcraft cases. Moreover, faced with the difficulty of providing material proof of an act of witchcraft, most judicial actors consider the confession of the accused person as the ultimate evidence, regardless of the motives of the accused in making the confession, which is often used for purposes of social appeasement and/or personal protection. Furthermore, social pressure from the community and the so-called protection of public order, which is invoked as a higher principle, have a strong influence on the judges’ decision-making and even divert the course of justice in order to satisfy the majority of the population.

Furthermore, judicial intervention is not in capacity to ensure the protection and reintegration of those accused of CWP. By prosecuting a person for CWP, the court attests to the reality of her or his witchcraft and the convicted person will remain vulnerable to further convictions and even further violence (even after release from prison). Justice also has the effect of formalising the omnipresence of the witchcraft risk, contributing to the effervescence of such types of discourse. In the event of an acquittal, the population, mostly distrustful of the judiciary, may seek justice for themselves, indirectly encouraged by the apparent passivity of judicial institutions in dealing with the violence inflicted on accused persons.

Action by ASF and its partners

Since 2021, thanks to the support of the European Union, ASF and its partners (Centre for the Promotion of Children’s Rights (CPDE), Organisation of Young Leaders for Development (OJLD), Maison de l’enfant et de la femme pygmée (MEFP) and Défis et Objectifs Centrafrique (DOC)) have been intervening at the heart of the state and community justice systems by promoting access to justice and the defence of women accused of CWP. The observations presented above are drawn from the study ‘Witchcraft representations and judicial treatment of the offence of Charlatanism and Witchcraft Practices in CAR’. This study was commissioned by Avocats Sans Frontières as part of the project ‘Contributing to the sustainable respect of the right to a fair trial and human rights for women accused of witchcraft in CAR’, in order to further inform the organisation’s action and future interventions in this area.

Perenco: The social and environmental impact of the French oil company’s activities abroad

Perenco has been in the news for several weeks. An environmental investigation carried out by EIF (Environmental Investigative Forum) with the support of the media Investigate Europe and Disclose has led to the publication of damning information on the French company’s activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo[1]. And the NGOs Sherpa and Friends of the Earth have taken legal action against the company for failing to carry out due diligence on its oil exploration and extraction activities abroad[2].

Poor governance in the management of natural resources, conflicts of interest, pollution and environmental damage linked to its activities, failure to involve the affected communities in the decision-making processes linked to the management of their land, lack of accountability with regard to the normative framework in force, etc. The list goes on.

In the field, Avocats Sans Frontières has monitored numerous violations of the fundamental rights of communities affected by the poor governance of natural resources linked to the company’s activities, particularly in the Muanda territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Several studies and reports (RENAD, CEPECO, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, and even a report by the Congolese Senate) reveal devastating practices, both for the environment and for the health and livelihood of local communities[3]. Among the violations reported: infringements of the right to a healthy environment, the right to health, the right to work and the right to dignity.

In the Muanda territory, the company has build power dynamics that systematically are to the disadvantage of local communities. The company does not fulfil its obligations under Congolese law and does not respect relevant international principles.

There are serious failures to consult and dialogue with the populations affected by its activities. The company has refused to respond to letters and requests for meetings from various civil society organisations and community members on many occasions.

The company famously refused to be involved in the discussions that took place during a round table organised in Kinshasa in July 2022 on the theme of natural resource governance which was attended by local, institutional and civil society actors.

This is a clear violation of Congolese law, which requires Perenco to consult the various stakeholders, including the affected communities.

In this regard, ASF commends the action initiated by Sherpa and Friends of the Earth before the French courts for ccological damage.

ASF would like to remind all stakeholders, including economic actors, the Congolese state and local representatives, of their obligations and their duty of accountability, in particular to promote and ensure a system of governance based on the fundamental rights of local populations.

In this regard, ASF makes the following recommendations:

– Implement the ministerial decree that organises the functioning of the mechanism for managing funds dedicated to community development (Cecetem);[4]

– Implement the ministerial order for the implementation of a follow-up to the recommendations of the tripartite round table (communities, companies and government);[5]

– Strengthen the mechanisms for collecting and processing community complaints, particularly by making them transparent and accessible to all;[6]

– Strengthen the state’s technical services to ensure transparency throughout the oil and gas industry’s value chain and to suppress all forms of impunity for economic actors. 

ASF’s action and role regarding Perenco’s activities

The multinational oil company has been under scutiny for many years because of the opaque and controversial management of its activities in several countries.

ASF, in partnership with Sherpa and Friends of the Earth, had tried in vain to demand that the company be transparent about its activities abroad. 

In 2018, ASF submitted a complaint to the French National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD to ensure that the company fulfils its duty of transparency in relation to its oil and gas exploration and production operations. In March 2021, ASF and IWatch finally decided to withdraw from the procedure, highlighting the structural dysfunctions of this tool from the OECD[7].

In January 2022, the French NCP published its final statement in which it specified that Perenco did not comply with several recommendations of the OECD Guidelines regarding its activities in Tunisia, in the Kebili region.

The NCP made a series of recommendations to the company:

– Perenco must comply with its due diligence in its exploration and exploitation activities;

– Perenco shall prevent and further mitigate social and environmental risks arising from the activities of its operating subsidiaries;

– Perenco should follow up on appropriate remedial or corrective actions in the event of adverse environmental, labour and human rights impacts, including through the transparent sharing of information on its activities[8].

Avocats Sans Frontières reaffirms its commitment to the fight against the impunity of economic and industrial actors. In the field in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia or Uganda, our teams continue to support and accompany communities affected by human and environmental rights violations suffered in the context of industrial extractive activities.

[1] Perenco : révélations sur les ravages du groupe pétrolier en RDC,, 9.11.2022 ; Perenco files: Les secrets toxiques d’un géant du pétrole,, November 2022.


[3] Renad, Cris d’alarme des Communautes Locales : Impacts de Perenco Rep sur le cadre de vie des communautés de Muanda en r.D.Congo,;

CEPECO, Rapport sur l’exploitation pétrolière à Moanda Bas Congo,;

CCFD, Pétrole à Muanda: la justice au rabais, ;

Commission d’enquête sur la pollution causée par l’exploitation pétrolière à Muanda dans la province du Bas-Congo :






Indonesia: 5 years supporting access to justice

In 2017, ASF launched its activities in Indonesia with two local partners. Together, we worked to increase access to both formal and informal justice mechanisms for marginalized and groups in vulnerable situations through improved community-level, evidence based service delivery. A special focus was put on training and supporting paralegals to help them assist local populations in their justice needs.

In countries with very few lawyers per capita, paralegals are practitioners who do not possess a law degree but have a basic knowledge and understanding of the law and deliver legal advice to the population. ASF has worked with paralegals in several of its countries of intervention as they can be fundamental actors in helping local populations access justice.

A baseline perception study on paralegals and the role they can play in strengthening access to justice was produced at the start of the project. Its findings were used to create training modules. These modules were then used by several local organizations to reinforce paralegals’ capacities. They address a large scope of subjects, with different thematic and geographical coverage, which made them flexible and useful for a great variety of organizations. Our partners have found it to be instrumental in supporting the enactment of the legal aid local regulation in Bali in 2019.

In the frame of the project, three digital platforms were launched to support civil society organisations.

A Case Management System was created and is now used by several organisations to manage the cases they are working on in a database. It has been developed in open source so that any legal aid organization can use it freely. 

The Paralegal Information System was created to help paralegals request and receive legal support from lawyers in order to asssit them in the cases they work on.

And finally, an application called E-resource, was created to allow legal aid service providers to access books and other resources.

To support advocacy efforts, a community of practice was created with multiple stakeholders working on legal aid issues. It allowed members to debate on future necessary legilslative reforms to promote. Those 5 years in Indonesia enabled us and our partners to draw important conclusions regarding access to justice in the region. First, it is undeniable that paralegals play an essential role in assisting local population in their justice needs. Their status needs to be further recognized by local and national authorities. Secondly, the production of flexible training modules with the possibilitly to choose the materials is easier to replicate and should be prefered to a fixed curriculum. Finally, even though the use of digital platforms to strengthen capacities of civil society organizations has been promising, it proved to be very expensive and lengthy to implement. It must be tailored for each organization, which can take months of discussions. The availability of IT officer and maintenance through funding source must be found to ensure the service sustainability.

Prisons in Tunisia: inertia of a repressive system

In Tunisia, the actors of the penal chain tend to perpetuate the repressive reflexes of the former Ben Ali regime. Prison overcrowding remains very high: a 131% rate of occupation with 23,607 prisoners at the end of 2020 (accused and convicted) for around 18,000 places available, resulting in detention conditions below international standards.

The measures taken to counter the pandemic had for a time helped to curb the figures. Between mid-March and the end of April, 8,551 detainees were released, a 37% drop in the prison population. This decrease was due in particular to the mobilisation of several civil society organisations, including Avocats Sans Frontières and its partners in the “L’Alternative” project. By multiplying calls for a decrease in the prison population, civil society has contributed to this notable drop in the prison occupancy rate.

Nevertheless, this historic deflation was only temporary. As a result of short-term measures (presidential pardons, reduced pre-trial detention and increased conditional releases), this drop was quickly erased by the repressive structural dynamics from which Tunisian penal policy still suffers.

Conservatism among judges, difficulties in accessing a defence from the moment of police custody, the massive use of pre-trial detention (62% of those incarcerated are defendants), imprisonment for minor offences (such as cannabis use or unpaid cheques), and the limited use of alternatives to prison are all factors that explain the persistence of this high rate of incarceration.

Changing people’s mind and moving away from these repressive reflexes, particularly in the magistracy, is a long-term task. This is why particular attention is paid to developing advocacy with actors in the criminal justice system and political decision-makers. This is all the more important as reforms of the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure are underway, which would be necessary for any significant structural change.

To contribute to the reform of penal and prison policy in Tunisia, ASF continues to work with its partners despite the democratic transition slowdown and a period of political instability in Tunisia. In particular, through its “L’Alternative” project, the organisation provides technical and financial support to civil society organisations working at different levels of the penal chain (before, during and after incarceration).

Legal clinics to support access to justice during pandemic

Throughout the world, the pandemic has pushed people further away from access to justice. In Morocco, ASF has been relying for several years on legal clinics, set up in universities, to promote access to justice, particularly for people in vulnerable situations. Under the supervision of teachers and legal professionals, students provide legal services to the population.

During the pandemic, these structures enabled ASF and its partners to maintain the link with justice seekers, and in particular with one of their main target groups: women victims of violence. One of the perverse effects of the measures imposed to contain the spread of the virus was the consequent increase in reports of domestic violence. The limitation of movement and the closure of certain administrative services deprived victims of domestic violence of the usual care systems.

In response, the legal clinic continued to provide legal advice and guidance via telephone consultations and the What’s app. By taking into account the habits of the beneficiaries, ASF was able to maintain contact with the women victims of violence in order to accompany them during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis also presented a challenge to the organisation of legal clinics. Access to prisons and protection centres, but also access to the legal clinics’ facilities was limited. To address those issues, four lawyers provided a service via different digital platforms (Zoom and Whatsapp) to receive calls from justice seekers and respond to their needs for legal advice and guidance.

The online coaching and capacity-building sessions for students were a real success. Despite some initial difficulties in adapting, the students, supported by lawyers, were able to receive complaints and provide guidance to the victims.

The legal clinics also organised mock trials via zoom, in order to prepare students for the digitalisation of the judicial penal chain (and in particular for remote trials). This activity allowed ASF to anticipate the future challenges linked to those transformations.

Reparation to victims of international crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major challenge in the fight against impunity

ASF has been active in the fight against impunity and the field of international justice for over 15 years in the DRC. During that time, the organization has witnessed great progress but regrets that current mechanisms are still not up to the challenges at stake.

As conflicts persist and condemnations in international crimes are more and more regular, victims still struggle to effectively receive the reparations that are granted to them by courts and tribunals. This represents a major issue as reparations are considered fundamental to achieving an effective process of reconciliation in the DRC. To this day, despite the 28 million USD granted to more than 3.300 victims, only one reparation ruling has been partially executed.

This obviously constitutes a major issue in itself but this is not the only problematic aspect about the reparations granted. Their form raises two major issues as well. First, they can only be granted through judicial decision, limiting access to justice for many victims. Secondly, Congolese law only allows the allocation of individual and monetary reparations.

The nature of the crimes committed, the prejudices suffered and their impact on large portion of the population require an adapted response. ASF considers that the Congolese legal system in its current state does not meet the standards required for these international crimes trials. International criminal law, for example, provides for the possibility of collective and non-pecuniary reparations, provisions which have not yet been incorporated into national legislation.

ASF addresses those challenges through its project “Pursuing the fight against impunity of grave crimes committed in the DRC”, funded by the European Union, and implemented in partnership with RCN Justice et Démocratie and Trial International. ASF’s and its partners’ strategy revolves around 4 axes: access to justice for victims, capacity building of field actors, awareness-raising and advocacy.

Thanks to the collaboration between ASF, its partners and the bar associations of Northern Kivu, Ituri and Maniema, more than 500 victims of international crimesinternational have been able to benefit from legal assistance in 2020. To make sure they benefit from the best services possible, ASF and its partners organized training sessions on reparations and their execution to the attention of lawyers, but also training sessions on data collection in the context of international crimes for civil society organizations.

Finally, ASF and its partners work to raise awareness of victims of international crimes and lead an advocacy effort to denounce the non-execution of the judicial decisions in favor of victims.

According to ASF, there is an urgent need for a thorough review of the place given to victims and reparations in the many international justice trials taking place in the DRC. For if these challenges are not met, the whole transitional justice process in the country is at risk. Its success is fundamental to enable the population to regain confidence in its institutions and to hope to achieve real reconciliation at national level.

Indonesia – Providing integrated services and a safe environment for women victims of domestic violence during the pandemic

Throughout the world, the increase of cases of violence against women has been an unfortunate feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Indonesia was no exception. Based on the data gathered by our local partners, the number of submitted complaints has suffered a 50% increase in Jakarta between 2019 and 2020. Those figures are another reminder of the gender inequalities still strongly embedded in family structures in Indonesia.

And those inequalities have been aggravated by a lack of consideration for gender discrimination in the formulation of COVID-19 policies in the country. Availability of social services accessible to women victims of violence remains too scarce. Physical and mental support services, sufficient allocated budgets, access to information and a safe environment, ability to file complaints, … are so many fields that need to be worked on in order to further help victims.

Considering this vast number of areas to improve, ASF has decided to focus its action on advocacy efforts to encourage authorities to provide multi-disciplinary services to support women who are faced with these issues. In 2020, ASF conducted several online meetings with paralegals and formulated recommendations to the local government as a continuation of its advocacy efforts for establishing an integrated criminal justice system in Indonesia.

The latest advocacy led by ASF and its partners has already seen the Jakarta governor take measures for preventing and handling cases of violence against women and children. Among those measures, posts have been created in public transportation to allow women to file their complaints and an online application and a hotline number have been implemented to facilitate further the filing of complaints. The local government has also committed to providing safe housing and legal, social and health facilities to victims. The new policy also recognizes the state as responsible for raising awareness about gender equality.

This new approach by the State and its recognition of the need for the implementation of multi-disciplinary services to improve access to justice for women victims of violence could become important precedents in Indonesia for other justice seekers. This represents a major progress in the approach to access to justice in the region and ASF hopes this can be built on to further advance human rights in the country.