Arche d’Alliance is an NGO based in Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Arche d’Alliance’s work focuses on human rights and rebuilding civil society, and it has a legal department that focuses on advocacy for people marginalized by the effects of armed conflict.
Since the war in Eastern Congo has all but evaporated civil society and basic respect for human rights and due process, Arche d’Alliance’s work is extremely important. A large part of Arche’s daily work consists of providing free legal support and representation to individuals in Congolese courts. This service is invaluable to restoring the balance of justice to Eastern Congo, however rudimentary and occasionally bizarre the Congolese justice system may appear to the outside observer.
On one fine Friday, I had the chance to observe proceedings in a Tribunal de la Paix in Uvira. Attorneys from Arche d’Alliance and several other NGOs were there to present cases before the judge.
The courtroom was packed with people when the chief justice finally arrived. The judge and all the lawyers all wore the same black robe with some decorative tassels, some in white, some in leopard print. As an American, I found it a bit unusual for the judge, the state’s representative, and all the barristers wearing the same outfit, but in this aspect Congolese courts are probably modeled after European courts.
The first case called was a man who was suing his wife. According to the details of the case, the husband had made insulting and slanderous remarks about his wife in the bar. The wife, having heard about her husband’s slanderous behavior, locked away his belongings in a hidden location and began refusing sex to her husband. The husband claimed he has never criticized his wife. I was struck by the fact that the husband was very angry that his wife refused him access to her body; it seems that, according to local custom, withholding sex is grounds enough for a man to take his wife to court.
A note on how language works in the courtroom: the official judicial language for the Congo is French. Thus, the judge and all the attorneys spoke French, they being educated people. However, not everybody in this part of Congo speaks French (Swahili is the everyday language of the Kivus), so if a party did not speak French, the court had to provide an interpreter to interpret everything into Swahili for the non-French speaker, and conversely translate into French everything they said to the court. This made proceedings awkward, to say the least.
Now, back to the courtroom drama. Since the husband had entered no witnesses on his account, the court decided to give him three weeks to find witnesses that could testify to his “blameless” behavior. The wife had to make sure that the witnesses she had named on her account were present at the next hearing. This case was first heard in 2008. As you can see, decisions are rarely rendered in Congolese court, and a case can stretch on and on for months.
After the first case, we heard cases that involved assault, rape, and sorcery. In Congo, a lot of people believe that if they get sick, it is the result of sorcery. Thus, many of the cases in the tribunal concerned people suing their neighbors for casting spells on them. No final judgments were passed down, and the chief judge would answer his mobile phone while barristers were presenting their case.
As you can see, the Congolese justice system is a ponderous animal that does not always apply the razor of reason. However, it is a step in the right direction, and slow courts that hear everyone out are better than corrupt ones that render a decision in favor of whoever has the deepest pockets. Since most marginalized people in Eastern Congo would not be able to afford good legal representation, Arche d’Alliance’s work in the Congolese court system is indispensable.
Posted By Walter James
Posted Jul 17th, 2009