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Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries

by The International Legal Foundation
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries

While in Brazil this month, I spent a day visiting custody hearings in the José Frederico Marques public jail with the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office. First introduced in Brazil in 2015, custody hearings ensure detainees see a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and were intended to curb Brazil’s pretrial detention problem. Brazil features the third-largest prison population in the world. According to international human rights bodies, torture of ordinary suspects is endemic yet underreported in Brazil, and often used as a means of investigation.

While intended to reduce pretrial detention rates, the custody hearings have not yet had the desired effect. The Rio Public Defender’s Office reported that only in about 1% of cases does the judge agree to release detainees when the prosecutor is asking that they be held. Detainees are frequently held on vague allegations that their release will violate the “public order” because of what they have been charged with and where they come from, in violation of the presumption of innocence. Nor have the custody hearings successfully reduced torture rates. 

This November, the ILF conducted an initial assessment of how custody hearings were being implemented in Rio de Janeiro. We discussed with the state Public Defender’s Office ways in which we can partner to reform the practice, based on our experience with other successful pretrial release initiatives around the world. The ILF looks forward to exploring opportunities to pilot reforms to custody hearings with the Rio Public Defender’s Office in future.


Pathein Team Going to Court
Pathein Team Going to Court

Two years since the ILF opened its doors in Myanmar and defended its first clients with your help, our project continues to grow and develop. This summer we opened a fifth legal aid office in Myanmar, located in conflict-affected Lashio (Northern Shan State), while we continued to strengthen our Yangon, Mandalay, Pathein, and Sittwe teams. The ILF now has 12 Myanmar lawyers on staff. To date, we’ve taken on a total of 236 cases, including the defense of 37 women and 24 children. 

Most exciting is that we’ve had a recent string of dismissals and acquittals across our Myanmar offices. These are “big wins” after some time of finding the “little wins.” I think the hard work and perseverance is starting to pay off, and we’re seeing real progress! It’s an exciting time – lots of camaraderie and team building. 

The ILF’s Myanmar lawyers have established themselves as drivers of change, regularly raising new arguments and testing out innovative legal strategies. They are now filing High Court and Supreme Court appeals. For example, this summer our team successfully filed a petition in the nature of a habeas corpus writ with the Yangon High Court, challenging illegal detention of a child. Impact: we’ve persuaded  regional courts to hear urgent challenges to pretrial detention -- a huge step forward.   

This summer, ILF International Fellows -- legal experts who volunteer their time for intensive field missions -- did amazing work mentoring our Myanmar colleagues, supporting our expansion, and developing a new juvenile practice. 

By bringing varied legal perspectives and deep criminal defense expertise to Myanmar, we are able to provide unique mentoring and learning opportunities for Myanmar staff. Juvenile justice expert Madalyn Wasilczuk, in Myanmar from May to July, did tremendous work establishing our juvenile practice, training staff on the particular needs of children and youth in contact with the law and how to best advocate on their behalf. 

While modeling best practices in our offices and strengthening the Myanmar defense bar, we are also supporting institutional development. In July, we offered our second capacity-building workshop for the Union Legal Aid Board, Myanmar’s government agency charged with coordinating and administering legal aid. The ILF provided technical assistance on applying the UN Principles and Guidelines to  implement Myanmar’s Legal Aid Law in line with international obligations. This training will help Myanmar structure and manage a sustainable, effective legal aid system. 

The challenges we see on the ground continue to inform our outreach and partnerships. In August, I spoke with the Asia Foundation’s Gender Empowerment program to discuss how we can improve gender sensitivity in the criminal justice system -- an issue we grapple with around the world. I look forward to exploring how we might partner with the Asia Foundation to advance these efforts in Myanmar and beyond. 

In short, it has been a busy but fruitful summer! Your steadfast support of our incredible fellows and public defenders is helping us break new ground and making change possible. Thank you all for joining us in the fight for justice!

Libby and Wai Wai at the new Lashio Office
Libby and Wai Wai at the new Lashio Office
Madalyn and May in Yangon
Madalyn and May in Yangon
An alleyway in Jakarta (JP/Ben Latuihamallo)
An alleyway in Jakarta (JP/Ben Latuihamallo)

Indonesia is an incredibly diverse, vibrant country with a population of over 260 million (the fourth largest in the world), that has made major democratic reforms since the end of military dictatorship in 1998. Despite these reforms, and the development of a legal aid law and framework, Indonesia still suffers from a crisis in access to justice. Unable to get prompt access to quality legal aid, poor and vulnerable people accused of crimes fall victim to illegal and arbitrary detention, corruption, false confessions and wrongful convictions - often times languishing in detention for months without a hearing. These violations have the potential to cause irreversible damage to their livelihoods, relationships, and family. Indonesia does benefit from an organized system of legal aid providers who are committed to fighting injustices but who are also struggling to develop the skills and capacity necessary to provide effective rights protections. In March, thanks to your support, I traveled to Jakarta to complete a legal system review and to gain on-the ground insight into barriers to access to justice for the poor.

During the trip, I identified several areas where the ILF can leverage its comparative experience while adapting our model to the particular conditions in Indonesia. First, as we’ve seen in many countries, Indonesians have limited access to counsel, particularly in rural areas. This is especially pronounced on remote islands. Second, attorneys have few incentives to take on tough criminal cases. The Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (ILAF) provides legal aid services, but the government pays lawyers by the case. A case involving civil penalties that can be resolved quickly earns a lawyer the same as taking on a complex criminal case, discouraging lawyers from serving defendants desperately in need of high quality counsel and facing high stakes penalties. Third, the culture in many police stations discourages defendants from promptly calling a lawyer, and I heard several descriptions of alleged mistreatment and bribery in this setting. Having defense lawyers on duty at police stations, as we’ve successfully piloted in Tunisia, could go a long way to prevent abuse, promote transparency, and rebuild faith in the system.    

Speaking with Indonesian colleagues was an amazing opportunity for professional exchange, and I found most audiences very curious about our work. Indonesia’s legal aid providers would benefit from a mentorship program that would increase their ability to combat rights violations by developing their capacity to ensure early access to quality counsel and engage in strategic litigation aimed at systemic change. This trip supports the ILF’s understanding that the challenges in Indonesia are shared by other countries in the region and our belief that addressing the quality of legal aid services can lead to an increase in access to justice. The information gathered will inform the ILF’s advocacy aimed at supporting human rights defenders in countries like Indonesia. We invite you to spread the word about the ILF’s effort. Many thanks for your steadfast support, and please do continue with us on this journey!

A juvenile defendant awaits trial in Yangon
A juvenile defendant awaits trial in Yangon

The International Legal Foundation has made great strides in its pursuit of justice for poor accused in Myanmar. Since our launch in Myanmar in late 2017, we’ve defended over one hundred accused men, women, and children from unjust detention and arrest. In Yangon, Mandalay, and Pathein these cases have been represented by our local lawyers under the expert instruction and mentoring of our International Fellows. In court, our defenders have made it a priority to protect defendants from illegal detention and mistreatment, and that’s why we’re honored to bring you the news that the United Nations Development Programme, which has been a global steward of access to justice for the poor and vulnerable for over fifty years, has chosen the International Legal Foundation to provide access to justice to women and other vulnerable groups in the crisis affected area of Rakhine State.

Rakhine is among the poorest states in Myanmar, with nearly 70% of its three million residents living below the poverty line. Many of these people, belonging to the Rohingya ethnic minority, live in camps for Internally Displaced Persons where informal police and courts wield absolute authority. There are so many in need of our services in Rakhine: We know this because of the cases we’ve taken elsewhere in Myanmar, like a young orphan girl accused of accessory to rape for making the bed where the alleged assault took place. Since last year we’ve been hard at work filling in the gaps in the Myanmar justice system and enforcing the rights granted to defendants, like when we fulfilled a pregnant woman’s plea not to give birth in a cell, awaiting trial – our lawyers successfully secured a bail order for her, so that she could receive the medical attention she and her newborn needed.

We’ve made incredible strides in Myanmar, and we’re thrilled that the United Nations Development Programme has chosen us to bring internationally recognized standards of criminal defense to one of the most in-need communities in the world. This has been made possible because of the support of the GlobalGiving community, which allowed us to assess and then respond to the urgent need for access to justice in Myanmar. Please, consider joining us on our mission: renew your donation today, or upgrade to a monthly donation, and help us advance access to justice in Myanmar and around the world.

Thanks to your support, the International Legal Foundation has been able to expand into Myanmar, where last month we opened our newest office in Pathein, Myanmar’s fifth largest city. Since opening the office, the ILF has been fighting for the release of the many children who are languishing in detention for petty offenses without access to a lawyer. In our first case, and first win for the office, our two newest Myanmar lawyers, Daw Twe and Daw Phyu secured the release of three young boys – 11, 12 and 14 years of age – who had been languishing in jail for over 30 days on the petty offense of stealing some wire from a construction site they had been playing in.

This case illustrates why the ILF’s work is so important; without access to counsel, children as young as 7-years old are routinely arrested and charged with petty offenses in Myanmar. The ILF’s work on behalf of these children is pioneering as few of them have access to a lawyer when arrested by the police. As a result, they languish in detention for weeks and months, unable to defend themselves or to contact their families for help. The ILF is looking to change this unjust practice by providing early and effective legal aid services to all children and by challenging their arrest and detention by the police. Supported by the ILF’s program director Holly Hobart, our newest Pathein lawyers sprung into action when the police contacted them to let them know that three young boys were languishing in detention without access to a lawyer. They fought to keep the court open on a Friday afternoon so that the boys could be released before the end of the day. We are incredibly proud of the hard work and commitment of our ILF team in making this happen.

This story is not unique to Myanmar. In too many countries around the world, people are being arrested and convicted for minor offenses, which puts them in contact with violent offenders and keeps them out of schools. The ILF is working to address this challenge by fighting to divert these cases into family or community based alternatives, and by expanding into new countries around the world. With your help, this past year we conducted legal needs assessments in Laos and Bangladesh, where we discovered a critical need for legal aid services to address injustices in those countries. And we are happy to report that as a result of our assessment in Laos, funded with support from GlobalGiving, the ILF has partnered with The Asia Foundation to open a new legal aid project there, under a grant from USAID!

Because of your support, our work is being recognized at a wider scope than ever before. At a recent international conference we co-hosted in Georgia, dozens of countries, inspired by evidence of real change that the ILF has created around the world, asked for us to help them reform their legal aid systems. In 2019, we hope to be able to continue to meet this critical call for assistance. In recognition of your support, GlobalGiving is offering to match up to $150,000 in donations over the next 24 hours. Please, show your support for those impacted by unfair and arbitrary abuses of justice this holiday season. Donate today. Thank you.


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Organization Information

The International Legal Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @theilf
Project Leader:
Jennifer Smith
New York, NY United States
$25,184 raised of $50,000 goal
152 donations
$24,816 to go
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