Being a lawyer in… Burundi

Mr. Isidore Rufyikiri

You are the President of the Bujumbura Bar Association which currently consists of two hundred lawyers. What is your view of how the legal system functions in your country?

The Burundian justice system is not independent, which is contrary to our constitution. The Judiciary Superior Council is largely run by Burundi’s executive branch. Judges and magistrates are recruited on the basis of their affiliations with the ruling party rather than on their skills or merits. Consequently, for sensitive trials dealing with political assassinations, cases of torture by State agents, or the imprisonment of opponents, journalists or human rights defenders, it is possible that a magistrate may give an arbitrary ruling. This can lead to exoneration of the perpetrator of the crime and the imprisonment of those close to the victim. Corruption is another important phenomenon that hinders proper functioning of the judiciary.

It sounds like a lawyer’s work conditions are difficult in such a situation…

Indeed, because justice is not based on the rule of law in Burundi. That being said, I remain optimistic. The current situation is more of a “passing virus”, even if it has been going on for years. It will change once our country is run by a government that has a greater sense of good governance (Note: the next general elections will be held in 2015). In the current situation, my colleagues who take on sensitive cases involving members of the government, police or army have big challenges. Their work carries real risks of intimidation, threats and imprisonment.

You mention sensitive cases. But what about justice for those average people who seek it?

Everyone in Burundi is aware of the rampant corruption at the heart of the judiciary. Add to that the poverty level of the population, and you will understand very quickly that for the majority of Burundians, justice remains inaccessible. The lawyer is certainly considered to be a useful and necessary figure, but costly. One important step toward improving the situation will be the establishment of a judiciary that enjoys the trust of everyone. It is necessary to establish objective and transparent recruitment criteria, to create a body to manage the profession and tenure of judges that is independent of the executive power, and ensure that it is provided with sufficient, autonomous financial resources.

As a lawyer, you yourself have been imprisoned for having defended certain cases.

That’s correct. At one point, I wanted to change from a judge to a lawyer. In 2000, after four years of imprisonment for political reasons, I was acquitted, and I wanted to carry on independently from the political powers. Six years later, I was incarcerated for six months in connection with a case in which I defended a political prisoner who was undergoing torture. Because of my intervention, the torture of my client was stopped. We had set up a joint defence and we were ultimately acquitted. My last incarceration – eight days – dates back to the summer of 2011. I had taken a public stance against the decision of a judge who had ordered the imprisonment of a lawyer. Despite this – or because of this – I am satisfied to have left a judiciary that was under influence of the political powers. As a lawyer, I consider myself independent and continue to exercise the law profession with passion.

What would it take to improve the situation of an independent legal system in Burundi?

The face of the Burundian judiciary must be changed. For this, international solidarity is indispensable. It is fundamental that the donors, NGOs and foreign bar associations put pressure on the Burundian government to encourage it to create conditions that are favourable to the creation of a truly independent judiciary. This independence is the guarantee of a social and economic stability necessary for attracting and reassuring foreign investors. Ultimately, only an independent legal system can resolve the resentment of the past and avoid civil wars to come.

November 2012


Burundi

  • Capital: Bujumbura
  • Official language: Kirundi, French
  • Population: 8.575.200
  • Life expectancy at birth: 50,40 jaar
  • GDP per capita (PPP): 400 USD
  • Adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above): 51.6%
  • Classification HDI*: 0.316 (185e)
  • Government: Republic

* HDI = Human Development Index, used to rank countries, composed from three dimensions:  health/long-lived (life expectancy at birth), knowledge and education (adult literacy rate), and standard of living (GDP per capita in PPP).

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