ASF in DR Congo: 15 years of commitment

Kinshasa, 13 March 2017 – ASF has come a long way since it started up its activities in Congo 15 years ago. Its aim, from the very beginning, has been to ensure that people become more aware of their rights and can enforce them. We opened our first office in Kinshasa on 12 March 2002. Since then, we’ve developed a wide range of projects that we describe below. Our network has grown nationwide, thanks to all those we have met who supported us, offering their advice and expertise, working with us in circumstances that were not always easy. On this anniversary, it’s our pleasure to thank everyone who has walked along this path with us. We would like to thank bar associations, lawyers, civil society organisations, and those who give us technical and financial support. And we could not have done it all without our dedicated, hard-working colleagues. We did our best to help all of those who turned to us for support. That is what makes our work worthwhile. We have certainly made progress, though we are in no doubt there will be challenges ahead. We are ready to contribute to resolving them to the best of our ability. The needs are certainly there. Now is a good time to take stock of what we have done, and to pave the way for the future. 2002-2004
  • ASF opens an office in Congo. Some 95 % of the population has no knowledge of the law nor of legal processes.
  • Intensive training for magistrates is set up in different provinces. The transitional constitution is translated into four vernacular languages.
  • Partnership launched with the library of the Faculty of Law, Kinshasa University.
  • Opening of the first ‘legal clinic’ in Kinshasa’s Kasa Vubu district, in partnership with the Women Lawyers’ Association in Congo. The clinic sees about 250 people a month to provide clear, understandable legal advice. Launch of awareness-raising and information campaigns in markets, outside churches, etc.
  • First mobile courts organised. Tribunals travel to remote locations.
  • ASF runs a regional project covering Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and campaigning against torture.
  • Efforts are stepped up to break the cycle of impunity in international crimes. ASF offers legal assistance to both victims and defendants in trials conducted within Congo, as well as to victims appearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
  • ASF campaigns against impunity in sex crimes, rampant throughout the country. Projects are launched to bring perpetrators to justice. These include support for local NGOs, capacity-building for lawyers, awareness-raising, legal advice and representation in court for victims, studies and publications.
  • ASF undertakes strategic litigation involving human rights defenders under threat, such as those involving Floribert Chebeya and the Sirforco Company in Yalisika. In contributing to bringing about justice for those involved, ASF works towards achieving sustainable legal remedies to combat the problems at stake.
  • ASF helps seven communities in Lisala in Equator to defend their rights against logging companies.
2012-2016 2016-2017
  • ASF supports human rights defenders and other civil society activists taking part in debates on democracy, to strengthen their influence and enable widespread participation in public debates during the electoral process.
  • ASF steps up its efforts to promote access to justice in Congo, supporting those taking part in conflict prevention and resolution, and strengthening mechanisms that can help to consolidate peace.
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Degrading and inhuman treatment is not inevitable

Brussels, 26 June 2015 – On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) recalls that countless people are also victims of inhuman and degrading treatment. These practices often arise from appalling detention conditions in many countries in a post-conflict situation or in transition. ASF is calling for a reduction in the use of detention.

Along with deliberate acts of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment constitutes a serious violation of human rights. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, when asked about their conditions of detention, the first thing that detainees the world over mention is not the torture they endure while in custody or in prison; above all they complain of a shortage of water and food and a lack of medical treatment, even for serious illnesses. The detainees also emphasise the violence, humiliation, discrimination and exploitation that they frequently suffer from.

“Prison overcrowding and shocking detention conditions in many countries are forms of inhuman and degrading treatment”, confirms Bruno Langhendries, ASF expert in legal assistance.

The observations made by ASF and our partners in prisons in countries such as Burundi, DR Congo, Uganda, and Tunisia are indisputable. “The terrible detention conditions in the prisons in which we work are not solely the result of deliberate acts committed by the authorities against detainees, but the result is the same: detainees endure inhuman and degrading treatment on a daily basis”, reports Bruno Langhendries.

For instance, in DR Congo, ASF has observed in several prisons that almost one detainee in two reports suffering assault or corporal punishment inflicted by guards or fellow detainees. Besides such physical harm, the detention conditions are inhuman. The cells have no running water and are overcrowded (the overcrowding rate can go up to 400%); detainees often have to survive on less than one litre of water a day. Many of them sleep on the floor and share one blanket between five people. When such situations become entrenched, detainees experience them as genuine acts of torture.

This cannot be explained solely by the lack of budgetary and physical resources to renovate prison facilities in DR Congo and other countries. In countries where ASF is active, 6 to 8 detainees out of 10 are awaiting trial. Pre-trial detention can range from several months to several years for minor offences such as vagrancy or theft. “The treatment suffered in detention is not inevitable. These violations are often the result of excessive use of detention as an immediate means of repressing people who are presumed innocent”, concludes the ASF expert.

For nearly ten years, ASF has been engaged in fighting inhuman and degrading treatment committed in detention by implementing actions aimed at curtailing the use of detention and bringing about a lasting reduction in the extremely high rate of people in pre-trial detention compared to the prison population as a whole.

Specifically, with support of the Belgian Development Cooperation, ASF’s partners – in particular lawyers’ associations – strengthen the ability of people in detention to better engage with lawyers and prison officials by making them aware of their rights; the systematic representation of detainees by lawyers so that judges’ rulings on the legality of detention can lead to systemic changes. The impact is beginning to be felt, for example in Burundi, where the rate of pre-trial detention has dropped by almost to 15 % in the last five years.

Finally, ASF advocates and brings together various stakeholders in the justice system to seek lasting solutions for reducing the number of cases of abuse, while at the same time improving the situation in prisons.

Cover picture: © ASF/Tim Op de Beeck

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“Yalisika” trial: Logging and human right in DRC

Kinshasa, DR Congo, 8 June 2015 – The NGO Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) welcomes the start of the trial concerning the attack on the village of Yalisika carried out in 2011. However, ASF is concerned that the perpetrators identified during the investigations have not yet been brought to trial, and recalls the importance of establishing the responsibility of all those involved in committing these crimes. This trial also sends out a signal that the human rights of populations must be respected in connection with logging and industrial operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On 2 May 2011, around 60 policemen and military personnel entered the small village of Bosanga, located in Yalisika, in the Equateur province. During this operation, serious human rights violations were committed, including rape, beatings, torture and destruction of property. This operation is said to have been a means of retaliation against villagers who had seized property belonging to the logging company SIFORCO in order to force it to enter into dialogue.

SIFORCO began its operations in the region in 1993, and signed a mission statement together with local chiefs in 2005. Under this agreement, the company had to implement social infrastructure projects for the benefit of villagers in return for being able to perform its logging activities. After SIFORCO failed to honour these commitments, local populations organised an action of protest.

The attack on the village is said to have been sponsored by SIFORCO, which is alleged to have provided logistical support (vehicles, drivers, etc.) to the police and military personnel acting on the orders of Colonel Koyo, Commander of the National Congolese Police in the territory of Bumba at the time. Colonel Koyo and five other policemen and military personnel are now being prosecuted.

In holding this trial, the justice system is sending out a signal to those in positions of power and to companies. “Serious crimes and large-scale human rights abuses are not necessarily always linked to situations of armed conflict. The human rights of populations must be respected in connection with logging and industrial operations”, recalls Josselin Léon, Head of the ASF Mission in DR Congo.

However, some of the other perpetrators and presumed accomplices have not been prosecuted. It is said that these individuals would disrupt the smooth running of the trial and unsettle victims and witnesses. “There have been cases of intimidation, threats and manipulation during the pre-trial phase. The safety and the well-being of the victims as well as others involved must be guaranteed throughout the procedure”, states the Head of Mission.

ASF wants protection measures to be taken in order to encourage victims and witnesses to participate in the procedure and to guarantee their safety after the trial is over.

The NGO is calling upon the Higher Prosecutor and the Military Court for the Equateur province to fully exercise their roles, independently and impartially, and to ensure that the requirements of a fair trial are met in the interest of proper administration of justice.

“We will closely follow the entire trial up until the verdict is issued. Once the culpability of all those involved has been established, we will continue working to ensure that the victims receive compensation”, confirms Josselin Léon.

The trial began last Friday at a mobile court in the region of Mbandaka, and is due to be closed by the end of June.

Since 2012, ASF has been working to collect witness testimonies, identify victims and raise awareness about participating in the procedures. Forty-two victims have been classed as civil parties and have charged the association of lawyers supported by ASF with defending their interests.

Cover picture: Yalisika, 2013 © ASF/ Bahia Zrikem

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Combating torture: Beware of “false victories”

Brussels/Bukavu/Kathmandu, 26 June 2012 – On the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) reiterates the need to ensure torturers do not escape punishment. ASF highlights two “false legal victories”: defining the term “torturer” (too) broadly and compensating victims so that they are dissuaded from seeking prosecution.

Under the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture, torture is defined as any act whereby a public official or any other person acting in an official capacity intentionally inflicts severe pain or suffering on a person. This violence must be exercised for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, punishing the person for an act he is suspected of having committed or intimidating him. “The State is actually considered to be responsible for this violence perpetrated in its name,” explains Jean-Charles Paras,  ASF expert in civil and political rights.

Progress has undoubtedly been made in several countries. Torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment is prohibited by laws criminalising these practices. However, a broad definition of perpetrators of torture does not necessarily support prosecuting genuine “state torturers”.  This is the case in Uganda, which has just passed a law defining torture in national law but applying it to any individual, not just agents of the State. “There is therefore a high risk that the State will only prosecute private individuals to show that it is proactive in combating torture but refrain from prosecuting its own police officers or soldiers,” warns Jean-Charles Paras.

ASF finds the same phenomenon in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Before the Torture Act was passed in 2011, it was difficult to convince judges to prosecute torturers,” recalls Sylvestre Biswima, a lawyer working with ASF in Bukavu. Even today, the judicial system shows a certain tolerance for the practice of torture and successful prosecution of agents of the State remains all too rare. “Trials can be long and drawn out. For instance, I’ve been following a torture trial for three years where the accused – a security guard – has not attended a single hearing!” reports the lawyer.

Prison de Mbandaka, RD Congo - Myriam Khaldi

Copyrights ASF / Myriam Khaldi

Compensation, a temptation for victims

A second “victory” that is a cause for concern for ASF in its fight against torture is compensation for victims when it is designed to dissuade them from seeking prosecution of the perpetrators.

For instance, in 1996, Nepal passed a law allowing victims to receive compensation from the State if they could prove the crime suffered by them. However, the aim of this Act is not to prosecute the criminals responsible. “In practice, this Act has only led to compensation for a few dozen people, out of the thousands of victims of torture during and after the conflict,” says Jean-Charles Paras. Victims are tempted to take advantage of this legislation to obtain financial compensation. As they are mainly poor people, they do not believe that the State will prosecute the torturers and therefore do not file a complaint. So, in practice, this Act changes nothing for the police officers and soldiers who still escape punishment.

Until legislation criminalising torture is passed, ASF, together with several Nepalese NGOs, is engaged in advocacy and supporting lawyers combating torture. “This support helps us to use the existing system and legislation more effectively to bring cases of torture to the attention of the police and judges,” believes Rajendar Ghimire, a Human Rights lawyer in Kathmandu. “In this way, we hope to help to protect, defend and restore victims’ human rights.

Torture is now recognised as one of the worst international crimes. Of course, the efforts made and results achieved, such as the passing of laws criminalising torture in the national legislation of certain countries and compensation for victims, deserve praise. However, there can be no lasting change while torturers generally go unpunished. “We need to beware of ‘false victories’ that are measures taken by States to hide the reality of torture which is, above all, a ‘crime of State’,” concludes Jean-Charles Paras. Continue reading “Combating torture: Beware of “false victories””