During a routine visit to Rwanda’s Gitarama central prison – considered one of the most overcrowded prisons on earth – the IBJ team of lawyers met with a demobilized soldier detained since 2007. To protect his identity, we will refer him to as ‘Pascal’.
In November 2007, Pascal met his friends outside the city of Gitarama to supposedly steal a car. One of his friends never showed up. It is said he instead alerted the police. The vehicle that was supposed to get robbed arrived almost one hour late. Pascal and the two other men had left by then. As they were walking back towards the town, a civilian vehicle approached them and offered a ride. They accepted and were driven straight to the police station. All three were flogged at several occasions to confess to the alleged crime.
Besides the claim of one of their comrades, nothing indicating they had the intention to or had committed the crime was ever found. The coerced investigative methods worked against them though, as under physical pain and psychological harassment they confessed to the crime in their respective statements.
Like many Rwandans, neither Pascal nor his friends could afford the services of a defense attorney. Practicing lawyers outside Kigali are few. Left unrepresented, each of them was convicted except the one who had collaborated with the police to proceed with the arrest. Pascal’s two comrades were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment each while he was convicted to four years, as he allegedly planned the robbery.
Pascal explained that, by the time IBJ lawyers got in touch with him, the bruises he sustained from the repeated scourging had healed without medical care. He never raised the fact he had been tortured in court.
The IBJ team of lawyers appealed the adjudication of the original proceeding and challenged the statement Pascal had tendered due to torture. Their efforts were successful. They obtained Pascal’s immediate release as well as the acquittal of the two other co-accused persons in late November 2010. At the announcement of the appeal judgment Pascal could barely hide his delight. Beyond this individual case, by challenging state torture, IBJ lawyers urge courts to send a strong signal to the investigating authorities throughout the country: torture is not acceptable.
As the world is celebrating the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can have a thought for Pascal, his countless friends who are still languishing in jail, and the extraordinarly dedicated lawyers who daily strive to make human rights a breathing reality in some of the most challenging environments.