Emblematic Cases

Emblematic Cases: the Law, a Force for Lasting Change

The law, which lies at the heart of the work of Avocats Sans Frontières, has never played such a great role as it does today, not only as a means of regulation of collective and individual human relations, but also and most importantly in ensuring the triumph and genuine recognition of human rights.

From this perspective, the development of the law – one of the most visible aspects of which is internationalisation – should constitute a “second chance” for all victims, persons suffering from discrimination and other vulnerable persons. The lawyer who engages in this struggle, by working with and for the law, thereby becomes a change agent by turning the law into a weapon for the powerless.

Through its different missions, ASF focuses on strategies that prioritize the use of legal tools and practices to make a lasting impact on the social, economic and political environment that is often the generator of poverty, violence and injustice.

The intervention of ASF in “emblematic cases” is part of this approach. These sensitive cases raise very specific social problems: protection of the fundamental rights of vulnerable people is a key element, alongside psychological, medical, social, economic and even political aspects.

The ASF strategy thus consists of advancing the role of the law as regulator, through its application by lawyers before the courts and occasionally before non-judicial institutions.

The lawyers at ASF take responsibility for the defence of vulnerable people in a certain number of emblematic cases with the aim of contributing to change – not only to undo the injustice suffered by those involved in the specific case, but also to generate through the law the conditions for lasting change to the entire problem.

© Kadir Van Lohuizen-NOOR Images

© Kadir Van Lohuizen-NOOR Images

Examples of emblematic cases in DRC

The names below have, of course, been changed to preserve confidentiality.

Child soldiers condemned to death!

Today in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not only can minors be enlisted as soldiers, making them victims of an international crime, but they can be held criminally responsible for acts committed in that role.  The paradox is that, from being the victim, the child quickly evolves into a perpetrator of crimes… and sometimes incurs the death penalty. There are numerous cases of minors being tried for acts of violence, which they were in effect forced to commit by being turned into soldiers and entrusted with a rifle.

Joseph is a 16 year old child soldier who accidentally took a life while trying to extort a sack of maize from a civilian. He has been condemned to death by the garrison’s military tribunal for manslaughter.

Dieudonné is a police officer but first and foremost he is a minor. During a demonstration in the city of Mbandaka, the police were brought in to disperse the demonstrators by firing shots into the air. In the confusion, Dieudonné shot a young man who later died. The military court has condemned him to death. For several years he has been incarcerated in the central prison of Kinshasa, far from his family.

ASF is going to intervene on behalf of these children because, while the dramas they have undergone deserve a vigorous defence in and of themselves, their situations are emblematic of the real life experiences of other child soldiers, also harshly sentenced by an extraordinary judicial procedure – while impunity for recruiters remains the general rule.

For Joseph and Dieudonné, the solution is to arrange for a defence attorney who knows how to use the law to put an end to injustice: can a defendant who has committed a crime while still a minor be prosecuted before a military tribunal? As a minor, can he be condemned to death?

In an appeal, Joseph has already partially won his case: the military court of Bukavu has overturned his conviction on the basis of lack of jurisdiction, and sent his case to the appropriate authorities, being the civilian courts.

As for Dieudonné, his sentence is unfortunately already final and not open to appeal. But a decree stipulates that all death penalties handed down against minors younger than 16 at the time of the offence are commuted, depending on the case, to a degree decided by the government or imprisonment for a maximum of 5 years. ASF has begun the process of enforcing this decree in this case, but now is faced with the challenge of proving the exact age of the defendant, and thus establishing that he was a minor at the time of the offence.

What fate for child “witches”?

For around twenty years, with the appearance of new religious sects and in the context of great impoverishment in DRC, hundreds of children have been stigmatised as possessors of black magic and held responsible for all the evils of a community. At best they are driven from their homes, at worst they are killed.

Several Congolese and international organisations are trying to raise awareness in communities in order to stamp out these superstitions so that children will no longer be treated as scapegoats for community problems.

This social phenomenon demands a global approach in which education is of course central. But what about the law? Even if Congolese law does not specifically cover this problem, it does forbid violence and discrimination. Criminal law, in particular, is supposed to protect the most vulnerable people. Still, the child must have access to it…

Lucille is a teenager who, after the death of her last relation, found herself accused of witchcraft by her stepmother with the support of a pastor from a revivalist church.  Driven away from her house, she was taken in by nuns who found her a foster family. A complaint was filed with the Public Prosecution Department against the pastor for the ill treatment she suffered and the accusations of witchcraft. A civil action has been started against the stepmother who had tried to exclude her from her father’s succession.

ASF lawyers are currently involved in these civil and criminal proceedings on behalf of Lucille. This might generate the first case law (and legal precedent) for violent acts against so-called child “witches”.

ASF’s publications and the latest news on emblematic cases. 

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