International Bridges to Justice

In recognition of the fundamental principles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Bridges to Justice, as a non-government and non-profit organization, is dedicated to ensuring the basic legal rights of ordinary citizens in developing countries. Specifically, IBJ works to guarantee all citizens the right to competent legal representation, the right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to a fair trial.
Feb 10, 2015

CHILDREN NOT TREATED AS CHILDREN DURING TRIAL



Throughout December 2014 IBJ provided a significant amount of legal assistance to prisoners from Cibitoke. IBJ legal fellows handled a total of 33 cases, with assistance from a group of volunteer advocates who were motivated by a desire to protect the rights of the indigent accused to legal representation.

It appears that all except 2 cases were to be held in ordinary chambers, rather than criminal chambers, despite the fact that one of the cases concerned a child defendant, called Bigirimana Toto. None of the case files brought before the judges were marked out as different, and his case was treated alongside adult defendants’ cases.

While defending Toto, who claimed to be 17 years old, the advocate raised the issue of his client being a minor. He demonstrated that, under the new Code on Criminal Procedure, Toto’s case should be held in a special chamber for children. In fact, under the new Code the case should have been treated differently from the stage of arrest onwards, however the investigating police officer had not paid attention to the details of the case.

The court did not believe that the case of a child defendant would be treated alongside those of adult defendants, and the prosecutor therefore attempted to prove that the defendant was lying about his age. He demanded that Toto provide his birth certificate.

The child’s lawyer did not consider it necessary to demand that Toto provide his birth certificate, since he had stated the same age consistently from the police stage of his case onwards.

The prosecutor was, however, obliged to find out the true age of the defendant while he was instructed on the case. It therefore took a long time for the lawyer to convince the bench. The fact that the defendant could not provide supporting evidence for his age was creating doubt around his legal situation, and the only way to address this was to provide the birth certificate, which was not easy to find. The defendant was imprisoned in Bujumbura, whereas his family, absent on the day of the trial, were in Cibitoke Province.

Finding the certificate could take a long time, and the child would have to spend further time in detention without a trial.

The lawyer therefore took advantage of the doubt surrounding the child’s age, asserting the legal principle of in dubio pro reo to argue that the court should give Toto the benefit of the doubt, assume that he was a child, and treat him accordingly.  

Fortunately, the court accepted this argument, and decided to hold Toto’s case in camera.


This changed everything. Toto was accused of robbery, and pleaded guilty. The prosecutor had initially called for a sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment, however after conceding that Toto was a child, he called for a sentence of only 2 years.

His lawyer has explained that, in the light of his guilty plea and his age, Toto is likely to be  given a light penalty of no more than 6 months’ imprisonment. Hopefully he will be tried as a child, and will benefit from the clement measures for children in the new Code on Criminal Procedure.


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Nov 11, 2014

Fight illegal juvenile detention in Burundi Nov14

HE KEEPS IN MIND THE ORGANIZATION WHICH HELPED HIM TO RECOVER HIS FREEDOM

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out distinctly that arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be a measure of last resort.
Although Burundi has made a step forward in integrating this principle in the new Code of Criminal Procedure enacted in April 2013, there are still many children in custody in Burundian prisons. The majority of them are detained for the commitment of minor crimes whilst a large number of them are pretrial detainees.
In addition, there is no legal aid system supported by the state for defendants who are unable to pay for a lawyer themselves. In other words, legal assistance in any form is not provided by the state.
Although the Committee on the Rights of the Child has enacted the right to be assisted by counsel as a fundamental right where states must ensure that every child facing criminal justice must have, it is evident that juveniles continue to face criminal charges without any legal assistance.

In order to fill this gap, IBJ established a Defense Resources Center in 2009 where IBJ lawyers are able to particularly take cases of children accused of crimes and deal with other cases as well.
Since the opening of the centre, many children accused of various crimes have been acquitted thanks to the high quality of legal defense provided by the IBJ trained lawyers.
Some of the acquitted youth go back school, while others run small businesses in order to meet their needs as well as those of their families.

One example is that of Jimmy, who serves among children who coordinate public parking in the capital city of Bujumbura. In order to earn a little money,  Jimmy helps people to park their cars and then offers to guard them. In return, he is paid with a lump sun of money.
Two months ago, an IBJ lawyer, who was parking his car, saw a child running after him telling him to secure the vehicle in case of theft of mirrors, flashing lights or headlights. Later, when the lawyer returned, he was going to pay the young man, who replied: “No sir, I cannot make you pay anything since I always remember the organization through which you assisted me in the court; the reason why I am free.”

The IBJ lawyer, after asking his name as well as the details of his case, was pleased to see the joy and gratitude Jimmy had while telling his story  about how IBJ saved his life.
This is undoubtedly a true sign of how donations given to IBJ have a strong and positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children.


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Aug 6, 2014

Fight illegal juvenile detention in Burundi: From inidividual cases to systemic changes

FROM INDIVIDUAL CASES TO SYSTEMIC CHANGE IN BURUNDI JUVENILE SYSTEM

In Burundi, the new Code of Criminal Procedure brought important judicial innovations, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 13 to 15 years and establishing an alternative to incarceration. The code also made legal representation mandatory for children under 18.  Despite this significant legislative progress, it is clear that these innovations remain textual, as many children continue to face prosecution without legal representation.

In order to bridge this gap between law and practice, International Bridges to Justice has provided support for 8 young children since April 2014. Among these cases, four juvenile defendants were prosecuted for rape, an offense that is severely punishable by law. Those cases are pending before Bujumbura Mairie courts where IBJ lawyers actively work to ensure fair trials to these children.

One of the defense lawyers’ strategies is to get judges to refer to the new Penal Code, which states that for an offense wherein the accused is punishable by life imprisonment, a child is sentenced to five to 10 years of imprisonment. And for an imprisonment limited in time, the conviction, in practice, should not exceed four years. Lawyers also emphasized that sentences often reflect only the seriousness of the offense regardless of the offender's age.  This strategy is beginning to bear fruit to the extent that a 16-year-old juvenile defendant, who was charged with robbery (who faced a sentence of five to 15 years if convicted), was sentenced to only eight months of imprisonment, which was the time the juvenile had already spent in jail awaiting trial.
 
 At the conclusion of the requests, the prosecution petitioned for a criminal sentence of one year, but the judge agreed with the IBJ lawyer’s request for a sentence of eight months. IBJ notes with satisfaction that even in difficult jurisdiction tangible changes can be made to influence the justice system positively.
 
This position reflects the active role that IBJ lawyers play to encourage judges to make decisions that are in the spirit of the legislation when laws were enacted.

Upon release, the young defendant called the IBJ lawyer who defended him, trembling with joy. He says he hopes to enroll in professional training courses, and hopes to earn a living to meet his needs and those of his family. IBJ believes that such approaches need to be replicated in other regions of the country in order to positively affect the lives of juveniles accused of crimes who are not lucky enough to have a lawyer. IBJ in Burundi is determined to continue such work, not only to bring joy to families of young children, but also to influence systemic change in the functionings of the juvenile justice system.


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