GOMA — The situation inside Goma’s Muzenza Prison, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is highly charged and threatening to explode as severe overcrowding mixes with questions about the justice system itself.
As many as 1,087 prisoners are crammed into a building designed for 150. Four out of every five prisoners are there in pre-trial detention and often must wait months before they appear in court.
One student was held in the facility for three months awaiting charges to be filed. Accused of rape by the family of an underage neighbor, he got out thanks to the help of a pro bono lawyer who demanded a medical examination that showed the allegedly raped girl was still a virgin.
The young man owes his release to the Congolese bar’s Free Consultation Office, which has been supported for over a year by NGO Lawyers Without Borders as part of a program to help reinforce justice in eastern regions of the DRC.
Lawyers from the program have been able to free some 50 innocent prisoners. Others have seen their detention confirmed by the court. The goal in itself is not so much to free them from jail but rather to force the courts to decide whether a detainee should remain in custody or be released, a much needed action to bring order back to an overcrowded facility.
But not all of the often destitute detainees are lucky enough to get the free legal assistance. Some can stay in jail for up to nine months or even be sentenced without a thorough investigation.
"The lawyers come to see the detainees, but they don’t strike me as very motivated," says Patrick Mukendi, the prison warden. "I can be appointed but it’s not up to me to pay for the transport, communication, writing of documents and the legal fees. That’s where the problem lies."
The government was supposed to allocate funds to the Free Consultation Office but things have been at a standstill for years. President Dunia Ruyenzi of the Bar is asking the state and NGOs for more money to face the massive demand for competent legal assistance.
For the prison warden, Mukendi, a situation that is unjust for the detainees also increases the amount of work for his administration. "It happens sometimes that a prisoner spends more time in jail prior to the trial than for the sentence he is eventually given," he explains. "For us, this means more mouths to feed, more people to cure, to look after."
The lead judge of Goma’s court of appeals Lazare Banide says that the jails cannot simply be emptied. "Crime is rife. Too many settling of scores. We can’t let delinquents go free." In the first six months of last year, 20 people were shot dead in Goma alone. Banditry and armed robbery is also widespread.
Still, the poor simpy can't afford legal help, with a minimum of $200 just to hire a lawyer. The Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo states that "freedom is the rule, detention the exception. Nobody can be sued, arrested, detained or sentenced but in accordance with the rule of law and within its framework."
In practice, however, the procedures’ deadlines are often not respected. The irony of course is that the lack of time or resources to carry out proper investigations in due time leads magistrates and judges to effectively break the law.
For appeals justice Lazare Banide, the first step to fixing the justice system is simple: not more lawyers, but more judges.