Congo attorneys slow legal aid as they face violence and intimidation

George Fominyen – WNN MDG Stories

Women's shelter Democratic Republic of Congo
Women's shelter for victims of sexual abuse Democratic Republic of the Congo, March 2009. Image: Marie Frechon/UN

(WNN) DAKAR: Impoverished people who cannot afford to pay legal fees could face dire times after lawyers in South Kivu province in eastern Congo threatened to suspend legal aid services as a sign of protest against attacks targeting them, analysts have said.

“It would obviously make life more difficult for the many civilians who depend on free and reduced-cost legal services to get help they can’t otherwise afford,” said Laura Seay, a Congo analyst at Morehouse College in the United States.

Five lawyers have been assaulted in the past two months in this restive part of the central African nation plagued by insecurity and human rights violations including sexual violence, with several incidents of mass rape.

The Bar Association in Bukavu, the headquarters of South Kivu, said in a statement that lawyers are being intimidated to prevent them from being involved in sensitive cases that are set to flood the courts very soon, the U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported on Monday.

There has been an upsurge in assaults and ambushes against civilians by several tribal militia groups, Rwandan Hutu rebels (FDLR ) and some members of the Congolese army (FARDC).

There were attacks on civilians in five localities in South Kivu, with at least four confirmed deaths as well as several torture and looting incidents between Friday and Sunda, Radio Okapi said.

Experts say corruption in the legal system means few people are punished, giving rise to impunity and popular mistrust of the judicial system.

“Most Congolese judges sell their decision to the highest bidder, and poor people cannot compete with wealthy businessmen, soldiers or merchants,” Seay told TrustLaw.

Civil society groups are concerned about the rise in violence against civilians, especially lawyers, journalists and activists attempting to change Congolese society in the run up to presidential elections due in November.

“If they continue to be targeted, it will have a chilling effect on free speech and on DRC’s democratic development,” Seay said.

South Kivu, and particularly its chief town of Bukavu, has thousands of pro-democracy activists and thinkers and its citizens are not afraid to dissent, to stage protests, or to educate the public through several civil society radio stations, street theatre and in the city’s religious institutions, experts say.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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