Police Charges Deter Plaintiffs

Forced to pay to register complaints, Congolese look for solutions outside the law.

Police Charges Deter Plaintiffs

Forced to pay to register complaints, Congolese look for solutions outside the law.

Thursday, 19 November, 2009
Few have faith in the verdicts handed down by the courts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where corruption and bribery are rife.

But even before a trial can begin, many of those seeking justice are asked to pay large sums of money just to register a complaint.

This means that many poorer members of society are being denied full access to the judicial system and are forced to settle disputes out of court.

When Léon had a problem with his neighbour, whom he accused of not honouring a debt, he decided to take his complaint to the local police station.

“The first thing that you are told before your case can be heard is that you must pay an amount of money, which the police call 'makola ya soda' ('transport' in Lingala, one of the native languages of the DRC). If you don’t have this money, you won’t get a chance to tell your story. Registering a complaint in the Congo means first giving money,” he said.

The police say that this money is needed to pay for transportation, which allows them to move around and properly investigate the alleged crime. However, critics of this system say that the payment is simply a form of bribery and is against Congolese law.

The difficulty with accessing justice creates an environment where many citizens prefer to resolve disputes outside of the country's formal legal system.

“Lacking money, people try to reach a settlement between themselves, rather than turning to the courts, where they are asked to give a lot of money, even if they don't have any,” said Lubumbashi resident, Bestob. “We prefer going to the neighbourhood’s wise men, who arbitrate between us. If we cannot find a solution at this level, we even refer to pastors.”

In Lubumbashi, a recent case in which a 16-year-old girl accused a 19-year-old man of raping her was settled out of court, because the costs of registering the case were too high for the girl's family to meet.

Following negotiations, the family of the accused agreed to pay a sum of money equivalent to 100 US dollars, a goat, a bag of salt and a tin of palm oil.

Hervé Kabambi, a lawyer from the NGO Justice Pour Toute l’Humanité, says that everyone was entitled to free access to justice, but that, because of a lack of information, many citizens do not know that they do not have to pay.

He urges the government to organise training workshops where people could be informed about their rights.

Kabambi's words are echoed by those of Claude Mawazo, a magistrate.

“If a person asks how much it is to register a complaint, the magistrate sees immediately that the person doesn't know the law,” Mawazo said. “The magistrate then gives a figure for a lump sum. There is no fixed price. Some pay US 100. Others pay more, others pay less.”

When Yvonne fell victim to a financial fraud, she claims that magistrates asked her to pay 50 dollars just to register her case.

“You see how magistrates earn money easily?” she said. “I don’t see the point of justice in our country, since it only exists for the wealthy. If you have no money, you can’t register a complaint.”

Magistrates justify the registration fee that they command by saying that, without it, they would not be able to adequately perform their jobs. The Congolese justice system remains crippled by lack of funds, with under-paid employees often working without access to basic resources.

“We lack office supplies,” said one magistrate, speaking on condition of anonymity. With this money, we can buy paper and pens. We work like we are in the Middle Ages. We write everything by hand. That’s why we ask for something in return.”

Joseph Mwenge, a police officer at Lubumbashi's police station, says if they didn't ask for transportation costs, they would not be able to properly investigate crimes.

“We have no car at our disposal for when we need to move about,” he said. “I cannot spend my own money to arrest a suspect or buy office supplies. The plaintiff has to bear some costs and my transport expenses. If any money remains at the end of the day, we share it between those who worked on that day.”

Heritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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