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.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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