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DR Congo's justice for sale

By Joseph Winter
BBC News, Kinshasa

Lawyers are trained to never admit being satisfied, but those in the Democratic Republic of Congo have more reason than most to complain.

Lawyer Octavius Nasena
Octavius Nasena says being a lawyer in DR Congo is frustrating
"I've already paid the judge, so why should I pay you too?" is a question they have to contend with from their clients.

After many years when the law was basically whatever the rich and powerful wanted it to be, DR Congo's legal system needs to be rebuilt, almost from scratch.

This is one of the tasks awaiting whoever wins this week's presidential election run-off.

Lawyer Octavius Nasena recounts a case when someone dared to question why his opponent in a property dispute had brazenly given an envelope full of money to the judge.

"After he complained, the judge called the police to arrest my client on charges of insulting him," Mr Nasena told the BBC News website.

The lawyer complained to the authorities, who ordered the judge's chambers to be searched, despite the judge's protestations that no-one had the right to know the contents of his private correspondence.

An envelope matching the one described by the client was found containing $1,000 in cash, and the judge was eventually suspended, although he was not disbarred.

Sharp practice

Mr Nasena says he comes across many more cases of corruption which are less blatant and so it is hard to find evidence.

"It is frustrating to work as a lawyer here," he says.

Judge Philippe Vokayandiki Mbumba
If you put most judges in the world in the conditions we have to put up with, they would simply refuse to work
Judge Philippe Vokayandiki Mbumba
On the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, it is not hard to find evidence of sharp legal practices.

Many property owners have resorted to writing: "Beware of conmen, this house is not for sale" on the walls of their houses.

When justice is for sale, you do not always need title deeds to sell a house, and the rightful owner may need considerable patience and funding to get their property back.

However, a representative of DR Congo's judges says the extent of the corruption has been exaggerated.

"Our judges are not corrupt," says Philippe Vokayandiki Mbumba, president of the Congolese Union of Christian Magistrates, Synchremac.

"If you put most judges in the world in the conditions we have to put up with, they would simply refuse to work."

He says that judges in DR Congo do not get paid a salary, just an allowance which until recently was just $100 a month.

Mr Mbumba says that paying judges properly is the first step towards eliminating the temptation to take bribes.

And far more money - in the right places - is needed for DR Congo's legal system to run really smoothly.

Although the court building I am interviewing Mr Mbumba in is new, it does not have a telephone line - people have to turn up in person if they want to contact court officials.

Front gate
Owners write warnings, saying their property is not for sale
There are also no computers.

"We write all our judgements by hand and secretaries then type them up, so we do the work twice," he says.

Lots of judges have already resigned because they cannot work in such conditions, further undermining DR Congo's legal system, he says.

As he talks, the cry of "thief" goes up from the overcrowded district which threatens to engulf the smart new aid donor-funded courthouse where he works.

Many Congolese prefer to exact their own justice rather than rely on the fragile state system.

Two-way bribery

Another lawyer, Didier Dimina, says that a functioning judiciary is the basis of a successful state - which DR Congo is hoping to become, following years of conflict and mismanagement.

He says that foreign investors will not put their job-creating funds in a country where the laws are not properly enforced.

"Our laws are fine in theory," he says. "But the reality is another matter."

Mr Dimina says the situation is slightly better than in the days of Mobutu Sese Seko, when his word was the law.

He points to the case of a group of soldiers, who were last year convicted of mass rape on the basis of international war crimes law, as offering a glimmer of hope for DR Congo's judiciary.

Mr Dimina hopes that whoever wins this month's presidential election will continue to make progress but he is not overly confident.

He says that following each of the changes in government in the past decade, things have improved for a while, before the new rulers have ended up copying their predecessors - even in the little things.

"When ministers and even their relatives feel they can speed through red lights, it gives a signal that those in power feel they can break the law," he says.

In the meantime, lawyers will continue to struggle to work normally.

So how do they answer when clients ask why they should be paid?

"Because the other party may have bribed the judge as well and so the case may just be decided on the law," Mr Nasena says.



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