Efforts to Strengthen DRC Judiciary Floundering

Deployment of newly recruited magistrates snagged, seemingly leaving judiciary in east as flawed as ever.

Efforts to Strengthen DRC Judiciary Floundering

Deployment of newly recruited magistrates snagged, seemingly leaving judiciary in east as flawed as ever.

Two inmates at Osio prison near Kisangani await the outcome of an appeals court decision in May 2006. (Photo: Hugo Rami/IRIN)
Two inmates at Osio prison near Kisangani await the outcome of an appeals court decision in May 2006. (Photo: Hugo Rami/IRIN)
Wednesday, 23 February, 2011

Despite a recruitment drive more than a year ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, which saw over 1,000 magistrates hired, few have actually begun work and observers warn that the country’s judicial system is still corrupt and overstretched.

The recruitment initiative in October 2009 followed the mass sacking of more than ten per cent of the magistracy in July of the same year, part of an anti-corruption purge ordered by President Joseph Kabila.

But critics say that the effects of the fresh influx of magistrates have not been felt outside the capital Kinshasa, with the east of the country still plagued by corruption and bad practice.

Out of several dozen magistrates assigned to Goma, North Kivu province, only a handful have so far been sworn in.

An official at the Goma district court said, “It is true that there are many magistrates who did not take office. Out of the 36 magistrates recruited, only six have been assigned to the district court’s prosecution office where they have been working for a few weeks now as deputy prosecutors.”

“Although many magistrates of the different DRC provinces have been recruited in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, only a few of them have taken office,” Goma resident Sammy Sumbusu said. “This did not help solve the problem of access to justice for the population, who also urged authorities to recruit as a solution to the problem of impunity and corruption that the judicial system still suffers from in eastern North Kivu and the whole of DRC.“

Magistrates say that logistical and financial problems often prevent them from taking up their positions. These include not being provided with adequate office space or receiving a regular salary.

Tuhihimbaze Rutchomboza, the provincial minister of justice, recognises that this is a particular problem in certain areas.

“It is true that there is a funding problem that blocks the entry of some judges in the province of North Kivu - although this is not the case across the province,” he said. “For example, this is a big problem in Butembo, but in Goma magistrates have started to work. The government is trying to put in place sufficient means to allow them to begin their work.”

A lawyer from Goma, among those recruited in Kinshasa in 2009 but yet to take up his position, said, “Since we have been recruited, the situation remained the same; nothing has changed.

“The objective was to recruit more magistrates to strengthen the judicial system and allow the whole population to access a fair justice system. Due to a lack of financial and logistical means, we’re unfortunately not yet in office - even though we’ve already been assigned to a position. We don’t know what’s blocking the process.”

The government, though, insists that access to justice in DRC is improving overall.

"These [magistrates] have been recruited as part of a government programme aimed at improving justice in general and the fight against impunity in particular,” Rutchomboza said. “This recruitment takes into account all aspects of justice such as the improvement of prison administration and judicial guarantees in order to expedite trials in North Kivu.”

The minister also says that steps are being taken to better the working conditions of magistrates, so that they are not lured into corruption.

Magistrates, like other civil servants in the DRC, are not well paid. This has been highlighted by critics in the past as another reason why the system is vulnerable to corruption.

“The government will do its best to put in place good working conditions so that these new [magistrates] do not make the same mistakes as the former ones,” Rutchomboza said.

But the hold-ups in magistrates taking up positions have harmed public perception of the justice system in the DRC yet further.

The 2009 recruitment drive was organised by the High Council of the Magistracy - a body set up in the 2006 constitution to supervise the judiciary - in the form of a three-day competition aimed at increasing the number of magistrates in DRC to 2,500.

“At the beginning of the recruitment process, everything seemed to be serious and we thought the situation would improve for once,” Hubert Kabongo, another Goma resident, said. “We don’t know why but everything turned slow again and magistrates could not take office.

“This recruitment was supposed to change the situation and especially the problem of corruption and impunity still wearing down the judicial system in our country. Unfortunately, this lack of magistrates has harmful consequences for those who cannot access justice. Many of their files are still waiting at the prosecution office.”

The official at Goma’s district court says that before the recruitment of new magistrates in the town there were only five deputy prosecutor magistrates and the prosecutor himself.

“They were dealing with several legal cases in the whole North Kivu province,” he said. “The task was too heavy for their work to be carried out.”

The recruitment of new magistrates had served to provide a glimmer of hope for not only the public but also many prisoners.

In the DRC legal system, magistrates either take on the role of court judge or that of investigating magistrate. There is a huge backlog of cases and many detainees languish in prison, awaiting an uncertain fate.

“I’ve been imprisoned for more than two years and I was never brought before a court,” said Christopher, a detainee at Goma central prison, who insisted that he had no idea why he had been incarcerated or what crime he was supposed to have committed. “I don’t even know why I am here and why nobody wants to listen to me.”

A magistrate at the general prosecution office in Goma said, “The recruitment of these magistrates for North Kivu province does not completely resolve the problem of justice but at least lightens the workload for magistrates.

“Even though the number who’ve been recruited is limited, at least with these additional lawyers we will start achieving results.”

Passy Mubalama is an IWPR-trained journalist in Goma.

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