International crime victims stand up to fear

Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)International justiceNews

Brussels/Bukavu, 17 July 2013 – On the Day of International Criminal Justice, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) would like to salute the courageous victims of grave human rights violations. Overcoming the fear of reprisals, they make their voices heard not only before the International Criminal Court, but also at the tribunals in their own countries. ASF reminds the international community of the importance of victims’ access to justice for the fight against impunity.

Julienne* is a woman from a village in the province of South Kivu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Seven years ago, almost to the day, the life of Julienne was changed forever by violence. Along with six other women from her village, this mother of two was raped by soldiers, who also disfigured her.

Today, Julienne lives 50 km away from her home village. “Because of what I went through, my family rejected me and my husband left me. I am trying to survive. I feel like I am dead and alive at the same time.”

However, Julienne did not resign to her fate and decided, with the help of ASF, to testify at the trial against the senior officer accused of committing serious human rights violations in 30 villages, including that of Julienne. These crimes include: looting, destroying houses by fire, rapes, murders, child kidnapping, hostage-taking, sexual slavery and torture.

Together with two local NGOs previously trained by ASF, ASF returned to the scenes of atrocities in order to collect stories, identify victims and raise awareness so the victims could participate in the proceedings. Following ASF’s intervention, the number of victims initially identified (by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office and the Prosecutor’s Office) rose from 30 to 700.

Dominique Kamauandu, ASF International Criminal Justice coordinator in DR Congo, manages those missions in the villages: “Our lawyers provide legal assistance to the victims. We are also in charge of the cost of travel, board and lodging for the victims who have agreed to testify”. However, the biggest challenge to overcome is the distrust villagers have toward the justice system, which seems inaccessible to them. Victims who decide to testify fear reprisals committed by people close to the criminals.

Despite the difficult situation, Julienne is determined: “Without the justice system and the trial, I would never have been able to come forward as a victim. Without ASF, I would be forgotten. My hope is that the person who did this will never do it again. We’re testifying so that if other women go through the same thing, they will have the courage to testify as well”.

In addition to the existing cases at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, dozens of trials for international crimes are underway at the national level, following the principle of complementarity. For example, in 2012 in DR Congo, ASF helped more than 2,100 victims and fifteen defendants in nineteen cases before military courts. The trial against the officer accused of violating Julienne’s human rights will start in the coming weeks. This is an opportunity for Julienne and the other victims supported by ASF to finally reclaim their rights.

*name changed to protect her identity

Cover photo: Despite their fear for reprisals, victims of international crimes have the courage to face the perpetrators in court. Bukavu, DR Congo, June 2013 © ASF / B. Zikrem