FINALIST: BBJ Pro Bono Lawyers Provide Access to Justice and Prevent Torture of Burundi's Most Vulnerable

Ask questions for the BBJ Pro Bono Lawyers Provide Access to Justice and Prevent Torture of Burundi’s Most Vulnerable project here!

BBJ Pro Bono Lawyers Provide Access to Justice and Prevent Torture of Burundi’s Most Vulnerable
Burundi Bridges to Justice (BBJ), Burundi

ABOUT: Amidst Burundi’s widespread human rights abuses and COVID-19, Burundi Bridges to Justice (BBJ) is a pioneering human rights organization that provides thousands of vulnerable accused individuals with early access to pro bono legal counsel. With no formal government-sponsored legal aid structure in Burundi, BBJ has built a functioning criminal legal aid model, implemented via its Defender Resource Center in Bujumbura. The organization’s Scaling Up Model includes plans to open three new Defender Resource Centers strategically placed to assist all prisons and provincial courts in the country. This will significantly work toward preventing investigative torture and fostering increased due process rights.

Learn more about this project on the World Justice Challenge website.

3 Likes

Hello Everyone,

On March 05, 2021, the President of the Republic of Burundi issued a Pardon decree aiming to release 5255 detainees (DECRET No 100/041 DU 05 MARS 2021 PORTANT MESURES DE GRACE). Indeed, it is good news since it will free some spaces in Burundi prisons. Yet, the solution of Burundi prison overpopulation is far from being found.

As of March 13, 2021, there were in all Burundi prisons 13441 detainees; the welcoming capacity of the all the prisons being 4194. Then prisons were occupied at 320.48%. If correctly implemented, the presidential pardon will lead to a prison occupancy rate of 195%. But, in the meantime, arrests occur every day; this implies that there is a likelihood of attaining quite similar numbers in prisons as it is the case today in very short term.

At BBJ we believe that fostering respect of due process and defense rights, ensuring early access to every accused and applying punishment other than imprisonment for petty offences would be among the good solutions for high prison overpopulation. These are the solutions we’re advocating and working for.

6 Likes

This is infact a good initiative and very benefic for the vulnerable arrestees and the improvement of Burundi criminal Justice system. Keep on well developing such good projects. wish you the Best .

3 Likes

The two solutions you propose/ advocate for are some ways to overcome the challenge of decreasing the overpopulation in prisons but how do you intend to bring criminal justice actors (judicial police officers, magistrates & judges) to change their way of working and so that the detention shall be the exception instead of being a rule it is today?

2 Likes

Thank you @mantheo for your question. Strengthening partnership with key justice institutions is the key methodology we have adopted. We envision to increase capacity building of criminal justice actors from judicial police officers to magistrates. We also conduct exchange roundtables that bring together different justice actors which are sanctioned by odoption of policy briefs that contain achievable commitments. We are pursuing a better coordination of the criminal justice channel so that it becomes efficient.

3 Likes

The solutions you propose seem essential to ensure that the due process rights of every individual are respected. Seem as there is no state sponsored legal aid, what would happen to the detainee’s if they were not provided with pro bono legal aid by BBJ?

3 Likes

Thank you so much @eoreilly for your question. The Government of Burundi, following the adoption of the National Legal Aid Strategy in 2018 has included an amount of less than US$3000 dedicated to legal aid to the National Budget. This was a recognition by the State of the need to establish a State Sponsored Legal Aid which is not yet there until now. This budget has not much evolved from that time. You should note that an amount like this one is very low to handle the actual need in terms of legal aid. If we take only the need of legal aid in criminal justice, 46% of 13441 detainees that were in prison as of March 13, 2021 were pre-trial detainees. A big majority of them are unable to pay for themselves legal fees and then afford a lawyer. The sad truth is that a very small number of those in pre-trial detention will, at the end of the day, get an attorney.

Therefore, with no access to a lawyer, detainees will appear to court alone with limited awareness of their rights. This result in unfair and long trials. Due process rights are mostly violated in most of cases where no lawyer is present.

To illustrate my response, last year one of BBJ lawyers defended a young girl of around 20 years old at the appeal level (the girl had no had the chance to get early access to our lawyers). She was accused of a severe offence punishable of life sentence. Before the first instance, she appeared in court alone and this was as such a violation of the Burundi criminal procedure code provisions since according to it any person accused of a crime punishable of more than 20 years of imprisonment must be provided with legal assistance except in case they consciously refuse to be assisted by a lawyer. The girl was not able to hire a lawyer. The High court had convicted her to life sentence. Once, she was provided with legal assistance before the Court of Appeal, we successfully got her sentence significantly reduced. This proved the difference between a case in which a lawyer is present and the one in which he is absent.

2 Likes

I would be interested to know more about the COVID-19 situation in Burundi and how BBJ has been able to enter jails and prisons in order to help detainees.

3 Likes

BBJ is doing an incredible job without any formal structure for defense lawyers - you are courageous and are changing the world!

3 Likes

Hello @Chris. Thank you for your question. At the beginning of the pendemic a ban to enter the prisons has been imposed to everyone including lawyers. This was a measure that was taken to protect detainees. We advocated for allowing lawyers to keep on visiting prisons and police cells as trials kept on being organized provided that lawyers take enough measures to protect detainees from COVID-19. This has been accepted and allowed to provide hundreds of vulnerable detainees and arrestees with legal assistance.

(Picture of a Juvenile provided with legal assistance in January 2021)

2 Likes

Dear @SCIBJ, thank you for your supportive words!

2 Likes

Thank you for the photo!
How were you able to able to convince the government to reopen the prisons to lawyers?

2 Likes

I have just read your project, for me it is a project that provides support to the most vulnerable in detention. How does this project put the mitigation of collaboration with the prison administration, the courts and the bar?

4 Likes

Your project proposes solutions that seem extremely effective to ensure access to justice to all and involve justice sector stakeholders, but I’m curious: how does BBJ raise awareness about legal rights and human rights for citizens?

2 Likes

Hello @Chris, thank you again for your question. First of all we sent letter to the ministry of justice requesting to take preventive measures against Covid-19 in prisons and maintaining access to justice despite the pendemic. In addition, we visited the office of the prison affairs department to discuss around the need to keep access of lawyers to prisons.

Dear @dieudonneBIRERE1984, we are working in partnership with the Ministry of Justice. This facilitates engagement with criminal justice actors such as courts and prisons officials. We have another priviledged partnership with the bar association. Coordination of our partners is achieved through our multistakeholders roundatbles (that embraced an oline format) whereby criminal justice actors are brought together to adopt solutions.

To respond to @agermann 's wonderful question. Please note that we conduct rights awareness through different ways. It is either through street law campaigns, prisons campaigns, sms and social media campaign as well as radio broadcasts. These last times, we mostly opted for radio awareness campaigns that guarantee an increased health security level.

3 Likes

Hello Finalist,
Would you please tell me what are your plans to tackle issues of injustice in your country if you will be the winner of this competition? Tell us how you are going to bring in trust amongst the locals and the Government? Another question is about refugees who are in other countries like Malawi, what will be your role in order to attract these refugees back home , because home is best?

3 Likes

I would be interested to know what are the main challenges facing criminal defence lawyers in Burundi and how do you work with other justice sector actors to address this issues?

3 Likes

Congratulations on being a finalist! The solutions this project is providing are a necessity and a “gamechanger” for Burundian citizens.

4 Likes

Dear @MOWE2021, thank you so much for your questions. At BBJ we tackle every day injustice through our intervention pillars that include providing pro bono lawyers to vulnerable detainees, training (capacity building) of criminal justice actors, prompting systemic changes through roundtables (virtual access to justice talk series) as well as rights awareness raising benefiting to the great public. In my opinion, ignorance around fundamental rights is both a cause and a direct consequences of injustice while being a key element that nurtures injustice. We develop early intervention model while providing vulnerable arrestees with early access to a counsel, visit police cells to make sure that we integrate a prevention approach instead of redress. If we win this competition, we plan to increase our scope of intervention both geographically and technically.

The underway project is a development of our “rebuilding trust through the rule of law program” designed to bring back/strengthen trust between ordinary citizens and government entities involved in arrests and detention of people. It is our assumption that if due process and fundamental rights are fully respected, then ordinary citizens will be more confident and trustful towards the Government institutions. This is why we tirelessly work for an increased respect of due process rights. In addition, by building partnerships with other relevant actors (governmental or private), we are sure that we will make it as together each achieves more.

You’re also asking the question around Burundi refugees living in countries like yours on our role to attract them back home. BBJ is working to improve the criminal justice in Burundi. Our work contributes to consolidation of peace and we believe that this is very important for refugees to feel secured in the event that they are back home.

To you @meaton, I also send my appreciation for your question. Among so many challenges that criminal defense lawyers face there is the fact of being “ assimilated to the case ” one’s working on. This sometimes entails number of collateral issues that may undermine the self-esteem and security of a lawyer. One may also point a certain asymmetry around the feel of human rights among different categories working in the same criminal justice which erodes mutual confidence between different criminal justice actors; with lawyers becoming in a certain way understood. By bringing together criminal justice actors in roundtables we foster mutual understanding and exchange.

2 Likes

Hello BBJ PRO BONO LAWYERS,

You are doing a wonderful job in Burundi and you have really answered my question. I wish you all the best probably that you must be the finalist. God bless you.
Regards,
Malankie John Gondwe

3 Likes