Verdiane, a Rwandan mother of four, was arrested after her ex-husband’s second wife arbitrarily accused her of spreading ethnic hatred. Verdiane was remanded in custody, tried before the Trial Court, and sentenced to ten years in prison. Thrown behind bars for a crime she did not commit, Verdiane was overwhelmed by the feeling of injustice. Not only did she find the separation from her children unbearable, but the poor conditions in which she was detained led her to develop severe pains in her back and legs - she was even rushed to hospital several times. However, Verdiane did not lose hope and asked a prison officer to help her find legal assistance. She was eventually put into contact with Aline Niyodusenga, a young lawyer originally from Kigali working with International Bridges to Justice. Aline immediately agreed to take on the case on a pro bono basis, and took over Verdiane’s appeal at the High Court. Thanks to Aline’s intervention, the process was instantly expedited. Aline presented a strong case in court, which was based on the lack of evidence against her client and the contradictions present in the witnesses’ evidence. As a result, the High Court acquitted Verdaine of all charges and ordered her immediate release. Verdiane was finally reunited with her children after three long years of absence. Verdiane commented that Aline and International Bridges to Justice "brought her back to life" by allowing her to be reunited with her family.
Images courtesy Krzysztof Raco and Michal Wojtysiak, copyright 2011.
"The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood," said Martin Luther King, Jr.
From the time of the initial legal needs assessment made for Rwanda in 2006, IBJ has made great strides in spreading that essential seed of hope of which Martin Luther King spoke in the quote above. In this genocide-ravaged country, IBJ has fostered a growing community of like-minded "disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice," and willing to defend their brothers and countrymen for the sake of achieving, ultimately, a more secure and livable society.
In partnership with the Kigali Bar Association, IBJ has conducted rights awareness campaigns aimed at reaching the general public and legal skills workshops for lawyers willing to step up to the challenge of defending the defenseless. Among the lawyers IBJ has reached through its trainings, many have joined IBJ as volunteers, deepening their commitment to providing legal assistance pro bono, and reaching many accused individuals who would otherwise have gone unrepresented in a bewildering criminal legal process.
One such volunteer attorney, Jacques Karamira, has embodied this spirit of hope, and has demonstrated, through a recent case, the possibility of achieving positive results for his client through determination and an unwillingness to accept injustice. After taking part in IBJ's skills trainings in 2010, Jacques was able to put his advocacy skills to work in the case of "Alex," a prisoner he encountered in April 2011 while conducting a regular prison visit on behalf of IBJ.
Alex is an ordinary Rwandan citizen, a married father of five, who had been accused of a robbery. In his initial encounter with Jacques, Alex maintained his innocence, and said he had no idea why he was accused of this crime. According to Jacques' investigation, the robbery in question took place in early 2009, although Alex's arrest did not occur until early 2010. After his arrest, Alex told Jacques, he was subjected to cruel beatings at the hands of police, who would not allow his family to visit him until he finally confessed to the crime. For over 16 months prior to meeting Jacques, Alex was being held in pre-trial detention, facing charges he didn't understand, awaiting trial at some uncertain time in the future.
Unfortunately, the situation that Alex was facing is not exceptional in Rwandan prisons. Approximately 26% of the entire prison population in Rwanda is detained awaiting trial. Cut off from their families and rarely able to afford access to legal counsel, they face life-threatening prison conditions. Although these detainees awaiting trial have not been found guilty of any crime, they are not segregated from the population of convicted prisoners. Without legal aid, many languish for months or even years without even knowing when their cases will be heard in a court of law.
With Jacques' expert assistance, however, Alex would soon have his day in court. The key for Alex was having a skilled advocate like Jacques to help navigate the case through the system. Only weeks after their initial meeting, Jacques was having Alex narrate his entire ordeal in open court. Alex recounted his torture, both mental and physical, and renounced the false confession that police had extracted from him. As the prosecution had no better evidence to support the charge against him, Alex was found innocent. The court granted Alex immediate release, allowing him to finally return to his family.
While many injustices may seem insurmountable, IBJ has always held that ending the routine use of torture in the world's criminal justice systems is an achievable goal with concrete solutions. The success that Jacques had in delivering Alex out of his unjust imprisonment is a clear example of a step in the right direction. IBJ is grateful to Jacques, one of Rwanda's nonconformists, bringing his country ever closer to a more secure and livable future.
Persistence to Challenge Unfair Proceedings in Rwanda: the story of “Hope” and IBJ lawyer Mary Katushabe
There is sometimes a blurred line between being the author of a criminal act or a victim of unjust circumstances. It takes a perceptive and compassionate legal professional to distinguish between the two. For Mary Katushabe, one of the IBJ Legal Task Force representatives, the ability to separate a criminal act from an act of desperation is a natural instinct. In countries in which certain fundamental legal norms, such as the presumption of innocence, are not fully internalized, a defender with Mary’s talent is rare.
In July, Mary took the IBJ case of an orphan accused of infanticide. The young girl, whom we will refer to as Hope, had fled her home after repeated mistreatment by her adoptive father. After leaving, Hope learned that she was pregnant. She had few people to whom she could turn. Upon approaching the boy whom she claims impregnated her, he denied his involvement in the conception. Prenatal or maternal care for most young girls in such a dire situation is not available in Rwanda. Aggravated by poor living conditions and malnutrition, the incidence of miscarriage or premature birth among young girls is high. Young, uneducated, and poor, Hope had few good options.
To secure a livelihood and stable housing, many young girls in Rwanda undertake domestic work. Hope did so too, yet over time she became too weak to perform her duties. The mistreatment she received from the father of the household for whom she worked was even worse than the mistreatment she had received from her adoptive father.
One day, Hope went to the bathroom thinking that she was experiencing digestive pains. As soon as she positioned herself over the toilet basin, the baby began to come out. Hope says that when she realized this, she tried to stand up and go outside. In the process, the baby somehow exited and fell into a bucket of water in the bathroom. The baby died, and Hope was arrested shortly thereafter.
The initial charge levied against Hope was abortion. The charge was then changed to infanticide. Though Hope was imprisoned in April 2008, her first court appearance did not occur until June 2010. Soon afterwords, Mary took Hope’s case as an IBJ volunteer.
At the trial on September 2nd, the prosecutors requested life imprisonment, but Mary, with her advocacy skills, was able to persuade the presiding judge to give Hope a seven-year sentence. Committed to ensuring that vulnerable, destitute individuals like Hope are afforded due process under Rwandan law and convinced that she can obtain an even lower sentence, Mary has filed an appeal.
Challenging Unlawful Accusation in Rwanda: the story of “Mark” and IBJ lawyer Dative Mujawamariya
Dative Mujawamariya is one IBJ Legal Task Force Lawyer who has been relentless in her efforts to facilitate access to justice in Rwanda. Dative participated in the two IBJ trainings and attended mentoring sessions at the Kigali CDRC, which she indicates have greatly helped her develop and assert her legal skills. She agreed to volunteer with IBJ and has already taken eight cases.
On August 11th 2010, Dative took on the case of a 27 year-old-man accused of rape. The man, whom we will refer to as Mark, is an impoverished cattle keeper. He was accused of raping a neighbor’s daughter. The key witness told police she had seen the girl in Mark’s bedroom holding money worth 50 Frw, the purpose of which was to buy her silence to her parents.
Mark was arrested by the police on July 2nd, 2010. He spent over a month in custody without ever meeting a lawyer and with no hope of being summoned to court. Then, the key witness came to visit Mark to apologize for having lied to the authorities and wrongfully accused him. She confessed that she had been promised 20,000 Frw by the victim’s father.
As Mark was facing a life sentence, Dative came across his case during one of her routine visits to the prison where he was being held to search for prisoners in need of legal aid. She read the medical statements in Mark’s file, which provided evidence that the crime had never been committed: medical tests on the young girl showed no signs of sexual intercourse.
Dative went on to solicit a trial date, and although the court calendar always seems fully booked, she was lucky enough to secure an August 26th date. The trial was subsequently subject to further delay, but this allowed Dative to compile compelling evidence against the prosecution’s case.
On the trial day of September 2nd, the case was heard, and that same day Mark was able to walk home following his acquittal. This victory – winning an innocent man’s life back – is one case among many that have given the volunteer legal defense team the courage to continue to fight.
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