Because of a sharp rise in violent crime, including rape, armed robbery and murder, Burundi is poised pass a law to greatly speed up the judicial process. But critics, including Amnesty International, say the draft law “makes a mockery of justice.”
This week, Burundi’s National Assembly may consider draft legislation that would truncate the judicial process – from arrest to possible execution – to less than 40 days.
Burundi’s president and other government officials have called for tough action in response to violent crime – especially if people are caught in the act.
But Alison Dillworth, of the human rights group Amnesty International, says the proposed law “emphasizes speed and arbitrary cut-off points for police and judicial investigations.”
She says, "It’s absolutely impossible to guarantee a fair trial. It’s impossible that the proper defense can be prepared. It’s impossible for the court to have the time to properly consider the information, to properly consider its verdict. So, there’s no way under this procedure that there can be a fair trial."
Amnesty, which opposes the death penalty, fears the legislation would result in many executions.
"One of the law articles of the law states that in capital cases execution must take place within seven days from the final verdict – unless presidential clemency is granted. It’s an extremely accelerated procedure," she says.
Ms. Dillworth says the draft legislation could pressure judges to impose the death penalty, especially in high profile cases.
The proposed law does state that the right to defense will be guaranteed. But Ms. Dillworth says despite what the document says, no such guarantee exists.
"In discussions we’ve had with people who’ve been involved in the drafting the law, they have reiterated this point – but it is just not true. It’s just not possible the defense can be guaranteed. You have a maximum of three days of investigation. The defendant must appear in court a maximum of 48 hours after his arrest. The court must retire and consider a verdict not more than seven days after the first appearance. The verdict must be delivered within 24 hours of the court starting deliberations. Appeal must be submitted with 24 hours of the notification of the verdict. These are just arbitrary time frames, which do not allow for a proper consideration of the information and the verdict," she says.
Amnesty says current legislation in Burundi “already provides the necessary framework to bring perpetrators to justice.” But, it admits the judicial system is “weak.”
She says, "The system is overburdened, under resourced, faces enormous challenges dealing with a backlog of cases – as well as thousands of other cases where perpetrators are at liberty. So, we are under no illusions of the burden that it suffers under."
She says Burundi’s judicial system is “also weakened by corruption, a lack of political will and decades of impunity by the government and the military.” As a result, she says Burundians have little faith in the rule of law and the justice system. Amnesty is calling for a “comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system.”