Defend Burundian Women & Children from Legal Abuse

by International Bridges to Justice
Volunteer lawyer Diane preparing the defense of a client
Volunteer lawyer Diane preparing the defense of a client

----------------------------------------------- 28 detainees released as a result of coordinated efforts of Burundian lawyers, magistrates and prison officials: Monday, December 14th, 2009 ----------------------------------------------- The roundtable discussion held in Gitega on October 15th on the issue of pre-trial detention concluded with great promises. The hope was to achieve a similar result as the one obtained following the roundtable discussion in Bubanza, which ultimately led to the release of 45 prisoners, among which 15 juveniles.

The promises have been kept. A month after the commitments taken during the roundtable discussion, 3 lawyers left Burundi’s capital city, led by IBJ Legal Fellow - Herman Ndayishimiye-, on November 24th to head to Gitega’s prison where André Mbayabya, the Prison Director, was waiting for them. Together, they scoured prison records and identified 182 cases of irregular pre-trial detentions. Among this overwhelming figure, 28 cases were identified as requiring immediate atention. The 4 lawyers therefore met with their clients, got familiar with each of their stories and prepared their defense strategy. As agreed with Gitega’s prosecutor and the magistrates who had attended the roundtable discussion, a special court session was conducted the day after to expedite these 28 cases. The result was a resounding success: all 28 detainees were immediately released.

This is a particularly significant result in today’s Burundi: recent prison riots - first in Gitega and then in Mpimba, Bujumbura’s central prison - have thrown the light on the detrimental prison living conditions, which have gotten worse since the peak of 11,000 prisoners nationwide has been reached two months ago. Irregular pre-trial detentions overburden a prison system which is already in shambles. Prisoners are not the only one protesting against the situation: Mpimba’s prison officials have declared that they would not accept any new prisoner in the prison as long as the trial of the many pre-trial detainees is not expedited. The ball is in the court system’s court.

----------------------------------------------- Sparking coordinated answers to pre-trial detention and educating citizens about their legal rights in Gitega Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 -----------------------------------------------

From October 14th to 16th IBJ left Bujumbura to head to Gitega, Burundi second largest city, to pursue its roundtable program and rights awareness campaigns. We already did the two hours drive in July with the visiting team from Geneva so as to visit the local prison and former participants to the June training session. We then came back in September to be formally introduced to officials and initiate the necessary contacts for organizing activities in the province.On Wednesday 14th October, after one holiday commemorating the assassination of Prince Louis Rwagasore, hero of national independence, the small IBJ car left Bujumbura with Astère, Claire and I onboard. We first went back to the same guest house where we lodged some 3 weeks before and then joined Nestor, APRODH local representative, to start with a first afternoon full of surveys. As usual, people were a bit shy and didn’t want to be the first to be interviewed. After a few minutes however, ice was broken and people were massing around interviewers and questions were answered by many participants at the same time, creating a nice mess with newcomers wishing to grab posters distributed by IBJ. This session lasted more than 3 hours, sometimes interrupted by heavy rain, a common fact during this period of the year. We were back at 6.30 in the guest house where we spent a quiet evening and we didn’t wait long before going to bed. We nonetheless took the precaution to order our breakfast in order to avoid last time surprise to wait for more than one hour to get 3 omelettes!

The day after started at 7am with our pre-ordered breakfast and we then dropped Astère at the venue so as for him to begin preparing for the event. Maître Herman Ndayishimiye, freshly recruited IBJ lawyer, was already waiting for us and replaced Astère in the car to head to the Vice Governor’s office, whom we had met 3 weeks before to express our wish to hold a roundtable and ask him to open the session. Unfortunately, he had forgotten the event and committed himself to open another roundtable. At the last minute, he nevertheless managed to free himself up to respect his initial engagement. In the meantime, the first participants had arrived at the venue, among them 6 lawyers coming from Bujumbura with Dieudonné, who has recently joined IBJ Burundi as a volunteer. After the opening speech of the Vice Governor and Astère’s welcome speech, Herman started animating the debates and introducing the problematic. Following the results reached in Bubanza, the session was once again dedicated to the question of pre-trial detentions. After having seen how pre-trial detentions were averse to the principle of alleged guiltlessness, the participants broke out into groups in order to identify the root causes of this phenomenon. Various ideas were suggested such as the lack of vehicles and fuel to allow judges to visit detainees and speed up procedures, the lack of access to lawyers or even paralegals to inform detainees of their rights. More challenging, some participants highlighted a certain shortage of professional conscience and even political pressures put on magistrates that lead to the justice dysfunction.

During the afternoon, participants were requested to reflect upon concrete solutions to put an end to this predicament. Numerous ideas were put forward, ranging from pleading the nullity of the procedure for lawyers defending long-term pre-trial detainees to making available police escorts to facilitate detainees’ transfers to courts so as to accelerate procedures. The most interesting proposal came along with the lawyers’ group suggesting to renew the operation held in Bubanza consisting in mandating lawyers coming from Bujumbura to visit Gitega prison and to point out illegal detentions. A few days after, a special court hearing could be organized where judges would statute on potential releases. Members of the penitentiary administration turned out enthusiastic and magistrates were not opposed to the proposal. Details have now to be discussed between IBJ and APRODH on how we could effectively support this effort.

After group pictures, participants went back home but the IBJ delegation stayed in Gitega for another last day of rights awareness campaign. Overall, about 1450 people have been educated about their rights in Gitega. We had a very safe night too, surrounded by several machine gun equipped security men, as the President of the Senate was also finding shelter at our guest house, even if he was hardly recognisable the next morning, as he was wearing sport suit and slippers… Our last day in Gitega went on smoothly and was dedicated to post-campaign surveys, aiming at evaluating the efficiency and visibility of our awareness efforts in Burundi. We finally left Gitega Friday at the beginning of the afternoon, after having shared a last lunch with our local partner APRODH representative and the young volunteers who helped us raising the population awareness. The drive back was a bit longer due to abundant rains making the road slippery and a few stops to buy delicious vegetables, while listening to rock music or religious preaches, depending on preferences. Anyhow, at the end of the path, it was a well deserved week-end for everyone.

Volunteer lawyer Zénon preparing the defense of a woman
Volunteer lawyer Zénon preparing the defense of a woman
Burundian kids hold a poster: “Burundi moves forward again"
Burundian kids hold a poster: “Burundi moves forward again"


Burundi Rights Awareness Posters
Burundi Rights Awareness Posters

First of all, thank you for your donation and your continued support of International Bridges to Justice’s Burundi program! With your help and support, we are continuing to see great success in Burundi as we move forward with training criminal defenders and conducting legal rights awareness campaigns. A lot has happened in the past few months, and significant progress is being made! Read on for our project updates:

============================================================================== June 29 – July 3: IBJ criminal justice training accelerates progress in Bujumbura, Burundi ============================================================================== Last month, IBJ held a highly successful second training session on the Burundian penal process, with attendance by 58 stakeholders of Burundi’s justice system. The training covered the process from arrest through interrogation to detention, treating each theme separately to facilitate the attendees with precise skills.

Employing diverse means such as role-play, visual representation and group discussion, the training brought a dynamism to the intricacies of legal practice. Roundtable discussions hosted by Burundian IBJ Fellow Astère Muyango closed Monday’s training for police officers, magistrates and officials from the penal system and Thursday’s session for lawyers, bringing together the preeminent minds of Burundi’s penal system to brainstorm solutions to the crucial issues of juvenile justice and jurisdictional aid.

Friday, the highlight of the week for many, brought these groups together in a mock-trial with judges playing detainees, prison directors as magistrates and General Commandant of Police Bernard Sekeganda trying his hand as a lawyer. At the training, IBJ also distributed copies of Burundi’s new penal code, encouraging the use of this document which marks much progress made – such as a new precision in the definition of torture, aiding in its eradication.

During the trip to Burundi, IBJ staff also had the chance to visit Mpimba Central Prison and Gitega Prison. Mpimba is the country’s largest detention center; although the official capacity is 400, it currently holds more than 1,800 prisoners. The story is similar in Gitega prison -- while the official capacity is 400, 1497 detainees are actually confined in Gitega. 566 detainees are men awaiting trial, 23 are women, and 37 are juveniles. More than 40% of the prison population has not yet appeared before a Judge. Visiting the prisons really brought to life the challenges we are facing as we strive to ensure legal representation to every man, woman and child in Burundi.

============================================================================== June 2009: Legal Rights Awareness Campaign in Ngozi, Burundi ============================================================================== Along with local partner APRODH, IBJ conducted a rights awareness campaign in Ngozi, Burundi’s third largest city. IBJ distributed “Know Your Rights” posters and handed out questionnaires in order to gain a better understanding of the real knowledge that the population has of its rights. 3000 of these posters – highlighting the rights of accused persons should they find themselves in police custody – had been printed a year ago. Yet, at that time we lacked the resources to distribute them. This year, IBJ has been able to expand the Burundi program with increased funds, and thus has been able to go ahead with the distribution of these posters, aimed at curbing torture and legal abuse.

However, after going to our first stop – the little village of Gasikanwa, we realized that IBJ will face several challenges while trying to improve the human rights situation in Burundi. It was almost impossible to find French-speakers; no activities would have been possible without the help of APRODH’s translators. Moreover, it was clear that a significant part of the rural population is still illiterate, and it became obvious that we wouldn’t achieve our initial goal of collecting around 50 responses.

Although at first we encountered some suspicion while trying to pass out our legal rights awareness posters, as one person then another decided to go ahead and take our posters the whole community decided, all of a sudden, that they did want what we were offering. We were soon unable to meet the demand as numerous hands reached out, hoping to take one - demonstrating the power of our rights awareness posters.

============================================================================== June 29th: Two Roundtable Sessions engaging magistrates, police, and prison officials ============================================================================== The roundtable event, taking place after the 2009 training, allowed for lively conversations about the Burundian juvenile justice system. The group was made up of around 17 stakeholders in Burundi’s judicial system, and the event was chaired by Astère Muyango, IBJ Burundi fellow.

A recent report from the penitentiary administration stated that there are 444 juveniles imprisoned in Burundi. Due to lack of financial resources, many children are held alongside adult convicted criminals. Some of the participants argued for the necessity of alternative sanctions including re-education and rehabilitation services for juveniles, which can help them reintegrate into society. Others mentioned that the root cause of juvenile detention – poverty – must be attacked first. The participants enjoyed the discussion and came away with a better understanding of the challenges facing juvenile justice in Burundi, and what needs to be done to change the status quo.

============================================================================== Thanks for reading our project updates! We hope you enjoyed hearing about our latest news, and we hope you will continue to support IBJ's work providing legal support and rights awareness for indigent women and children in Burundi. ==============================================================================

A boy with the head in his hands, Gitega Prison, Burundi
A boy with the head in his hands, Gitega Prison, Burundi
Mock Trial portion of criminal defense training in Burundi
Mock Trial portion of criminal defense training in Burundi


I arrived at International Bridges to Justice in November of 2007 to fill the role of Deputy Director. Prior to working at IBJ, I was a public defender in San Francisco for twenty-two years. I had met the founder of IBJ, Karen Tse, in 1992 when we were colleagues in the SFPD office. After gaining experience as a defender, Karen moved on to a career as an international human rights attorney. She founded IBJ in 2001.When I began working at IBJ, the organization had already developed an expertise in training attorneys and developing systemic solutions to implementing criminal laws in Asia. Preparatory work had already been completed to expand IBJ’s programs into Burundi and Rwanda, and one of my first assignments was to organize the first training of defenders, judges, police, prosecutors and members of civil society in Burundi. Contemporaneously, IBJ had plans to follow up work in Rwanda by launching a rights awareness campaign in that country.

Rwanda and Burundi are inextricably bound by ethnicity and a shared history of colonialism. Violence in those countries escalated into genocidal civil wars that ravaged the societies, their governments and their legal systems. Hutus are the majority population in both countries. Historically, the Tutsi have held the minority and ruling power. Originally a monarchy, by the turn of the 20th century the European colonial powers were gobbling up these two countries as a part of their African land grabs. At the close of the 19th century Germany annexed both independent Kingdoms along with Tanzania. This area, known as the Great Lakes region of Africa, was renamed German East Africa. During the First World War, Belgium conquered the area from its vantage point in the Belgian Congo. With the German defeat at the end of World War I, the area then became known as the Belgian Occupied East African Territories. The League of Nations officially granted Belgium control over the occupied lands in 1924 and the area was named Ruanda-Urundi. With the demise of the League of Nations in 1945, the countries became a United Nations trust territory with the goal that they would transition towards independent rule. That independence did not actually happen until July 1, 1962.

During Belgian’s rule, their strategy of governance was to control the two predominant groups through a policy of ethnic divisiveness. The Belgians introduced identity cards that required the ethnic identification of either Hutu or Tutsi. To further control the population, the much more populace Hutu were subordinated to the dominion of the Tutsi minority through Tutsi preferences for advanced education, jobs and employment. The Tutsi were also in control of the military. When independence was finally proclaimed the two countries of Rwanda and Burundi were recognized, neither country was prepared for governance.

Burundi began a thirty-year reign of Tutsi military dictators. The seeds for ethnic tension, sown by the Belgians, grew into years of ethnic violence. In 1972, 1988, and 1993 the Tutsi controlled government engaged in campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Hutu civilians. The first campaign resulted in the death of 500,000 Hutu. Democratic elections in 1993 resulted in the victory of a Hutu dominated party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi. The democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated with months of the election and a new round of genocidal killings of Hutu ensued.

Rwanda’s history ran a parallel course, but on a reverse route. At the time of independence it was the majority Hutu population that gained control of the government. A series of ethnic cleansings by the Hutu against the Tutsi erupted at similar intervals to the Burundi unrest. In 1963 an anti-Tutsi backlash by the Hutu government resulted in the killing of 14,000. With each wave of violence in Burundi, Hutu refugees fled into neighboring Rwanda. Meanwhile Rwanda refugees were forming guerilla movements from the safety of Uganda. These Tutsi guerillas founded a military band, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, dedicated to returning to Rwanda and claiming the country back from the Hutu. By 1993 a cease fire was signed between the Hutu government and the Tutsi RPF rebels. The cease fire - known as the Arusha accords- called for a power sharing between the Hutu and Tutsis. With the eruption into Civil War of Burundi, the tentative Arusha cease fire crumbled. On April 6, 1994 the two Hutu presidents of Burundi and Rwanda were assassinated together when their plane was shot down. This incident sparked the internecine genocidal killing that resulted in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in four months. The genocidal killing caught the attention of a world that watched in disbelief but failed to stop the killing. The Tutsi guerillas finally took control back and set in motion a Diaspora of Hutu who fled to neighboring countries to avoid punishment for their genocide.

Since that time, despite substantial international assistance and political reforms, Rwanda continued to struggle to foster growth and reconciliation. Part of this is due to the fact that Rwandan stability is undoubtedly dependent upon stability in Burundi, and instability had reigned in Burundi until 2003 when a cease fire was negotiated and a period of relative peace occurred.

I say relative peace because our training program was almost cancelled when a rebel group located just outside the Burundi capital of Bujumbura began shelling the city two weeks before our scheduled departure. By the time we arrived in Bujumbura on May 15, 2008 the shelling had stopped and the city was once again enjoying a period of relative calm. I hoped it would last.

IBJ began planning the Burundi training program in earnest in February of 2008. It was my responsibility to adapt our work in China and Vietnam to this training. I was being assisted by a young Zimbabwean attorney, Marlon Zakeyo. Marlon had worked as an intern for IBJ for two years, during which time he had been building relationships with legal organizations in Africa.

IBJ had already formed a strong partnership in Burundi with a local NGO, APRODH, the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons. The organization was founded by Mr. Pierre Mbonimpa, known throughout Burundi for his unwavering dedication to the protection of the rights of prisoners in his country. A former prisoner and victim of torture himself, Mr Mbonimpa had fearlessly campaigned against state-sanctioned torture in his strife torn country for over a decade. Despite laws prohibiting torture and other human rights violations, such abuses were still rampant in the country’s overcrowded prisons.

In 2006, IBJ began working together with Pierre Mbonimpa to strengthen Burundi’s criminal justice system. We initiated a rights awareness campaign with the distribution of a poster in Kirundi, the tribal language of the country, illustrating fundamental rights of the accused to be free from torture and to have access to an attorney. The poster campaign was almost too successful. 10,000 posters were printed, but after distributing 7,000 of the posters, APRODH stopped the distribution because they were inundated with many more requests for help than they could handle. It was time to take the next step and build a viable legal system, capable of providing basic legal representation to the thousands of ordinary prisoners waiting for representation and access to a courtroom.

Preparing an in-country training requires understanding of the culture, history and the legal system of a country. I knew the history of the Rwanda genocide, but Burundi’s history had not been as well-documented. A crash course in Burundi history made me realize that this training was going to be much more than just a legal training. IBJ was taking on the much bigger challenge of attempting to work within a legal system virtually collapsed from years of war.

In modern adversarial courtrooms the rules of engagement are clearly defined and chivalrous. But in a post-conflict country the adversarial lines in the courtroom could reflect the history of mistrust and violence. Our main challenge was in designing a training program that would harmoniously bring adversaries in the Burundi criminal justice system together and give them advice on how to reform their system and heal their countries’ open wounds.

To further complicate things, my entire body of experience was within an English speaking, common law system, while the Burundi legal system was a Francophone civil law system. Our final hurdle was working with our small grant from the UN Against Torture that just about covered the travel costs to Geneva, but no more. So the first obvious priority was to find a French-speaking attorney interested in volunteering to work with IBJ.

I knew no French attorneys, had no budget to hire a French trainer, and spoke no French, but saying no to this challenge was not an option. So I forged ahead.

After Marlon vigorously searched through IBJ’s resumes, we found a French criminal defender who was interested in IBJ’s work. We called him and within a week we were meeting our trainer. Mehdi Benbouzid, a French criminal defender with extensive experience training lawyers, students and police, has an invested interest in Africa and a commitment to human rights. He also had the necessary amount of francophone civil law expertise, as he had a Law degree and a Masters in Law from Université Jean Moulin in Lyon. He had been actively practicing as a criminal defender for twelve years, all the while teaching and lecturing on criminal law. He had lectured on war crimes and crimes against human rights. He had recently completed work with the International Red Cross in Syria and Jordan as a field coordinator/team leader, interviewing suspected terrorists held in Jordan and providing human rights assessments in Syria. He was perfect.

When Mehdi first arrived I was not aware of the extent of his qualifications, I was just relieved that he spoke French. His first meeting with IBJ confirmed his commitment to see the project through to the end. He would eventually help design the training, prepare the training materials, and be the primary trainer, all pro bono. We got down to work and began to brainstorm on how to design a cross-cultural four day training that would speak to the needs of the various participants with whom we would be working. We held a series of work sessions over the next three months.

Practically speaking, we didn’t know what to expect. Neither Mehdi nor I had been to Burundi. Even though Mehdi was familiar with the framework for their antiquated French Civil Procedure Codes, we didn’t know what the actual practice of law would be like.

Karen’s experiences working in China, Cambodia and Vietnam suggested that the starting point for rebuilding and healing was to get people to engage in identifying the values that motivated them to enter their professions in the first place. Taking it beyond a basis of fundamental skill building, our training would start with each group identifying the highest values they associated with their profession. As we planned, we decided that it was critical that the various groups articulate their hopes and dreams for their system. We also prioritized creating exercises that would sensitize the participants to the particular difficulties and each other’s perspectives. Finally, to get people to come for all four days we had to include a measure of humility well integrated with lots of humor and fun. If, at the very least, we could help create feelings of respect and trust among the group, we would have achieved a lot.

Then, the week before our trip, we experienced a minor catastrophe. Mehdi wasn’t going to be able to get a visa for the Rwanda portion of the trip because the French had severed their diplomatic relations with Rwanda. I had already left for Burundi to handle the pre-training logistics when I heard the news. To my relief, I learned that Mehdi was tenacious. He parked himself in the visa office and managed to get the visa issued two hours before closing time on Friday. On Sunday he boarded his flight to Bujumbura.


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Organization Information

International Bridges to Justice

Location: Geneva - Switzerland
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Sanjeewa Liyanage
International Program Director
Geneva, Switzerland

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