Burundi has not been spared the plague of corruption on the African continent, as it has positioned itself for many years in the group of the most corrupt countries in the world (in 2016, it placed 159th out of 175 countries assessed). These findings are confirmed by reports from many institutions from across the across the globe that investigate the incidence of corruption. For example, Transparency International (TI) declared Burundi to be the most corrupt country in East Africa, according to its most recent international report on Africa (2015).
It is fair then to wonder if and to what extent this corruption spreads to the judicial system?
As has been reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in many of its reports, "the police and the judiciary have the highest rates of bribery." This is to be compared with the aforementioned TI report, which also advances that the police and courts rank really high on the corruption scale.
Regarding police corruption, many Burundians stress the fact that the some of the police accept bribes or money to arrest innocent people, or to free up convicts who were found to have committed offences or crimes. And within the judiciary, corruption can be evidenced by court officials and judges influencing verdicts, putting files ahead, freeing up convicts, or not executing judgments.
Corruption in the judicial system is not unknown to the government itself. Indeed, in 2006 the Minister of Justice and Attorney General admitted it himself. Following his declaration, many legislative measures were taken to fight this phenomenon – both within the public as well as the private sector. Such measures included the creation of an anti-corruption court as well as an anti-corruption brigade. Some 10 years later, the incidence of judicial corruption remains apparently unchanged, as the new Minister of Justice admitted in 2016. He identified the main culprits as magistrates of the residence courts, administrative courts, labor courts, as well as ironically, those also from the anti-corruption court.
In effect, it is a pity to notice that cases of corruption occur within the institutions that are meant to best guarantee justice and security for citizens. Because of these occurrences, even though not constant, the population is negatively affected, as their trust in the police or justice system gets increasingly eroded. This can actually present a danger, as the assumption that all police or courts are corrupt can emerge. These perceptions and suspicions towards the judicial and police entities can consequently nourish the phenomena of corruption, as certain citizens – now convinced that all are corrupt – can start ‘using’ the latter to their advantage, further perpetuating the corruption.
Besides the disastrous consequences that corruption has on society in general, including on social cohesion, it is interesting to assess the implications of judicial corruption on those that are primarily affected – convicts.
Consequences of corruption on convicts' rights
The main consequence of this judicial corruption is the fundamental violation of human rights and freedoms. The simple fact of incarcerating innocent people in exchange for bribes is an abuse of the rights emanating from all. From this come the feelings of injustice that falsely detained prisoners have from being refused hearing from judges, or being denied judicial investigation or access to proceedings by a corrupt police or prosecutor.
Another consequence is the fact that corruption can limit and make justice hard to reach, and somehow prohibitive for prisoners. Indeed, for detainees, this invariably means that they are not in a position to pay the bribe that would have made them free. Indeed, many HRW reports have collected testimonies where magistrates ordered convicts freed in exchange for bribes. Hence, as Charles Nguini expressed and rightfully so, “when judicial systems are corrupt, everybody loses. Particularly the most impoverished, that find themselves forced to pay bribes when they cannot afford them”.
Corruption then also affects the prison environment, where only those convicts with means can make their cases move forward or obtain ‘preferential’ treatment from corrupt guards. The incarcerated persons may not therefore be the most criminal inmates but rather the most impoverished.
From a human rights’ perspective, the principle of equality for all is completely undermined, considering the fact that only those who are well off would be able to guarantee their own freedom when confronted with corruption. In addition to the violation of both principles of equality and freedom – rights granted to all – Burundian convicts that are victims of corruption can see their rights to the presumption of innocence, to an independent and impartial tribunal, along with not to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, be taken away. The condition of human rights is therefore truly affected by the practice of corruption in Burundi.
Corruption is like gangrene, which affects the entirety of any state system: from the economical to the political, and through to the social and judicial aspects. In particular, judicial corruption “brings about impunity and undermines the rule of law” . In the case of Burundi, the government is aware of judicial corruption and is trying to fight the issue, even though improvements still remain to be seen. More measures should be implemented in order to remedy to the problem at hand and avert its many consequences – the main victims of this being Burundian citizens. Indeed, the latter see their freedoms being taken away when incarcerated, or their condition of life impoverished as they give away their meager resources to secure ‘protection’ through bribes. From a judicial point of view, many rights are undermined, such as the right to presumption of innocence and to an independent and impartial tribunal.
Corruption has consquences that go way beyond what we may think of, even more so when considering it from the human right’s perspective. Another important aspect to consider is the effect an ‘endless circle’ of corruption provokes. Corruption is not an institutional problem but rather one created at the individual level. As more cases of corrupt police or courts go unreported, indeed citizens engaging with these institutions might use the phenomena of corruption to get out of trouble, therefore making the personnel corrupt, and in turn reinforcing and propagating the practice of corruption within Burundian society.