Citizens Gather for Justice in Bangassou, Central African Republic (CAR)

News of the hearing and the presence of a lawyer spread throughout the surrounding area. Members of the community came out to witness it and people are seen here spilling out of the court trying to watch the hearing.

By: Claire Duguid

In the midst of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), the infrastructure of the country’s judicial institutions was destroyed. In addition, many court personnel, along with local residents, fled their respective jurisdictions and are just now beginning to return. Coupled with the absence of the judicial institutions and the limited function of those still operating, issues of impunity have intensified, leaving Central Africans with insufficient ways to exercise their rights. Additionally, community members have little trust in their judicial authorities, who face challenges with corruption, and lack proper resources and training. Nevertheless, many Central Africans do believe the national justice system should be used in cases of serious crimes, such as murder and sexual violence.

As part of ABA ROLI’s programming in CAR to increase citizens’ access to justice, we deploy a mobile legal aid clinic in areas of the country that have been severely affected by conflict to provide legal and psychosocial assistance to Central Africans. In August 2019, we deployed the mobile clinic to Bangassou, a town in the southeast region of CAR that experienced intense rates of violence and displacement in 2017.

During this deployment, Guy Dangavo (Maitre Dangavo), a Central African attorney who has worked with ABA ROLI since 2015, pleaded 12 cases at the Bangassou Court of First Instance. According to the presiding judge, this hearing represented the first time a lawyer has been present at a hearing in the court since 2013.

Guy Dangavo, Central African attorney, pleads a case during the hearing at the Bangassou Court of First Instance. In the background are community members crowding into the courtroom to witness this significant milestone.

The 12 cases included rape, theft, and accusations of witchcraft. All four women accused of witchcraft were cleared of their charges after Maitre Dangavo asserted that there was no evidence for their crimes. In many jurisdictions in CAR, judges will often reduce the severity of sexual violence cases to enable them to be heard in courts of first instance. In this case, the judge charged the four men accused of rape with the misdemeanor crime of ‘indecent act.’ In response, Maitre Dangavo successfully argued that the crimes the four men committed were in fact felonies— not misdemeanors— and thus not within this court's jurisdiction to preside over them. The cases were returned to the investigating judge, who will prepare them for the Court of Appeals. 

In conjunction with the hearing, ABA ROLI conducted an outreach event led by Maitre Dangavo and the public prosecutor of the Court of First Instance. With nearly 400 attendees, the event gave Bangassou residents the opportunity to ask the prosecutor how local judicial authorities and the justice system can better serve their community. Specifically, attendees asked questions about the hearing process, their civil rights, and methods to combat impunity and harmful practices by judicial authorities in their communities.

Later, the Court President and Commanders from the police and Gendarmerie joined the prosecutor in the discussion. For most residents it was the first time they were able to directly engage with judicial authorities and have sufficient space to share what they need from CAR’s justice system.

Citizens attend an outreach event alongside the hearing, lead by Guy Dangavo (left), the public prosecutor of the Court of First Instance (center), and ABA ROLI's psychosocial worker Sylvie Madagui (right).

Central African judicial institutions still require long term support before resuming regular operations, which includes responding effectively to the needs of their jurisdictions. In the meantime, Guy Dangavo’s work, and the work of other legal aid clinic lawyers, demonstrates to vulnerable community members in CAR that lawyers can (and should) be available to them and can fill a piece of the gap that prevents Central Africans from accessing justice. 

Learn more about ABA ROLI's work across Africa.