CASE STUDY: The Fizi Mobile Court: Access to Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence
As a result of a successful collaboration between judicial officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), and the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), some of the survivors of brutal sexual assault at the hands of soldiers in a remote area of DRC received timely justice from a mobile court held outdoors in a small, rural town.
The DRC has experienced over ten years of conflict, and rampant sexual violence been met with impunity for the most part. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is able to hear just a few atrocity cases each year so local justice is desperately needed, particularly in remote areas. The DRC mobile courts have both military and civil jurisdiction and were designed to focus on sexual violence, though they have discretion to hear other crimes as well. In one year the mobile courts heard 186 cases in the South Kivu area, 115 of which were rape cases.
One mobile court in Bakara found four senior officers guilty of rape and terrorism as crimes against humanity and five soldiers guilty of rape and inhumane acts. The crimes occurred in a New Year’s Day, 2011, rampage in the village of Fizi, South Kivu, DRC. The four officers were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and the soldiers were sentenced to 10 or 15 years.
The project’s designer determined the following key strategies for success:
- The mobile court was implemented by local Congolese officials from both military and civil sectors.
- Judicial officials and lawyers for all parties received specialized training.
- The 49 victims were allowed to testify in private.
- When necessary or requested, victim’s identities were shielded from the public.
- A large crowd was present at the outdoor trial, promoting accountability and education.
- International observers lent credibility to the proceedings.
In the Fizi trial, investigation, arrests, trial, and convictions all occurred within 2 months, and the project’s designer attributed the speed not only to the mobile court, but to pressure from international and United Nations sources and community outrage. The project’s designer said:
“When the local government and judicial processes, the United Nations, NGOs, donors, media and international actors work together, even those leading, ordering or directing attacks can be tried and convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. This is possible in places devastated by war and largely operating without a functioning rule of law system. With the ICC going after the highest level accused often out of reach of domestic jurisdictions- and the local courts, including mobile courts, going after lower level suspects- accountability can become the norm, and impunity the exception.”
The aid to victims has been expanded to fund a legal clinic to provide victims with assistance from the beginning of the decision on whether or not to testify through post-trial procedures to obtain reparations awarded at trial.
Source: Askin. 2010. Fizi mobile court: rape verdicts and email correspondence with Dr. Kelly Askin, on file with The Advocates for Human Rights.
South Africa – Builds Courts in Rural Areas
After the end of apartheid in 1994, the newly-democratic government of South Africa began to expand physical access to justice by building new courts in rural and township areas. In 1999, this goal was cited as a priority by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development. By 2003, 23 new courts had been constructed, 58 had been renovated, and numerous others were in process of being built or planned. As part of this initiative, a High Court has been built in Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, to eliminate the need for Limpopo residents to travel to neighboring provinces for High Court hearings. In addition to constructing new courts, the government has also upgraded a number of branch courts into full courts.
Source: AfriMAP and Open Society Foundation for South Africa. 2005. South Africa: Justice Sector and the Rule of Law.
Incorporate safety features into facilities
Tools on Court Safety:
Steps to Best Practices for Court Building Security (National Center for State Courts, 2010) organizes the steps to court building security in phases designed for implementation by courts with limited resources. Available in English.
Guidelines for Implementing Best Practices in Court Building Security (National Center for State Courts, 2010) contains worksheets to prioritize security measures and compare actual costs. Available in English.
Domestic Violence Safety Plan, “Be Safe at the Courthouse” section of the American Bar Association website. Available in English.
Armenia – Improves Safety by Renovating Courthouses
From 2000 to 2006, the World Bank-funded Judicial Reform Project in Armenia targeted several aspects of the judicial system, including the physical state of courthouses themselves. Soviet-era standards for the judiciary often mean that courthouses were located in cramped, dilapidated buildings and did not provide adequate security for those seeking justice. One courthouse in central Yerevan, for instance, was located in a crumbling apartment building where defendants, judges, and other individuals all shared the same space. The project moved courts to a sturdier building, set up metal detectors, separated defendants from the general public, and installed a card-operated security system. A total of 12 courthouses were either renovated or rebuilt as part of the initiative.
Source: World Bank. 2005. Renovated Courthouses Give New Meaning to Justice.
Establish specialized courts, dockets, and prosecutor units for cases of gender-based violence
For more information, see also: Specialized courts/tribunals for violence against women in the Legislation Module.