Voices from Kinshasa (3/3): “Freedom is under the hammer”

Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)DetentionHuman rights defendersNews

Kinshasa, 26 April 2016 – In DR Congo, defending the rights of victims of injustice and exercising fundamental rights remains a challenge. Faced with an often failing legal system and, at times, intimidation, men and women are pursuing an ideal: to live in a fairer world. Last of three encounters: lawyer Hervé Mafwila, on illegal detention. Maître Hervé Mafwila is a member of the Bar at the Court of Appeal of Kinshasa/Matete. Criminal lawyer, he is a member of the ASF pool of lawyers. Twice a week, he visits the central prison in Makala to provide prisoners with legal advice. As a native of this part of the Congolese capital, this father of five is familiar with living conditions there: “Here, people are living in great poverty. They live hand to mouth. If someone is put in prison, how can he possibly post bail? They’re at the mercy of the system”. This is what happened to Didier, one of the cases handled by the lawyer. End 2014, this young man was accused of rape of a minor by the step-father of the alleged victim, a young girl called Arlette. Arrested by the police, he was put in prison in Makala. Having seen his file, Maître Mafwila established not only that the period of custody was not respected but also that nothing had been done to investigate the case on the merits. “The court had ordered imprisonment of Didier based on a simple report, without any investigation having been carried out, or even having interviewed the victim”, recounts the lawyer. “During proceedings, we found out that the young girl in question was in fact Didier’s fiancée, a consenting adult at the time of the events”. Arlette was relieved when her fiancé was released: “Didier didn’t do anything wrong. He never should have been arrested. I was pregnant with his child. It was very hard for me, knowing he was in prison.”  As a mark of their gratitude to Maître Mafwila, the young parents decided to give their newborn the lawyer’s first name: Hervé. For Maître Mafwila, failures in the legal system are mainly linked to money. “Every one of us aspires to freedom. Today, if you are put in prison for a minor offence, the only way out is to buy your freedom by posting bail. The bids then go up, to as much as 300 dollars”. To reverse this trend, actors in the legal system need to be rigorous and conscientious, urges the lawyer: “Currently, a lot of judges demand to be paid, when they should be setting an example. That said, I can see that when we step in, in the context of the Free Consultations Office, with ASF, judges pay more attention. A great deal of work still needs to be done. But at least everyone I get out of prison – like Didier – is able to pick up his life again.”
Picture: Arlette (l.) gave her baby the first name of the lawyer, Maître Mafwila (r.) who got her fiancé released: Hervé. Matete, Kinshasa, 2015 © ASF / G. Van Moortel