Friday, 13 May 2011

Burundi, children behind bars..

Channel 4's programme Unreported World exposes the plight of hundreds of children in Burundi locked up for years without trial in adult prisons, among some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. (Click here to see it on the Channel 4 website). And they meet one man who has dedicated his life to freeing them; Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa is the only hope many of these children have.

(Note: The film is still available on the Channel 4oD website even now in 2013, but you will need to register if you're not already registered on the site and then navigate to the 2011 series. Use this link, its worth the trouble).

Burundi has no juvenile justice system and children above the age of 15 are tried as adults. By law any child under that age should not be imprisoned, but in a country recovering from civil war and where record keeping is scant, many under-age children are slipping through the net and are being locked up.

There is no legal aid, and there are only 106 lawyers for a population of over eight million people. This is one of the reasons why three quarters of children are being held for long periods without trial.

While wrongly imprisoned for two years, 62-year-old Pierre found the body of a child prisoner who had been murdered. The incident affected him deeply and he decided to spend the rest of his life defending victims of injustice.

Reporter Ramita Navai and director Wael Dabbous travel with Pierre to a prison in Ruyigi province, one of the poorest parts of the country. They find more than 20 children in the jail, several of whom look younger than 15.

Many of them say they have been locked up having been accused of minor offences, such as stealing a bag of rice. Nestor tells Navai he is 12 and has been there for two months. 'My family never liked me. That's why they sent me here. They've left me here to die,' he says.

Navai and Dabbous travel with Pierre to Mpimba prison, the country's most notorious jail, which houses some of the most dangerous criminals. It was built for 800 prisoners but there are now more than 3300. The team finds nearly 100 boys sleeping in one cell, nearly all of whom are being held without trial. There's no room to lie down or sit, so the boys are all forced to stand.

One of them, Claude, says he is 13 years old. He has been accused of rape but appears to be the victim of a dispute between families. Like other children, he may have been falsely accused of a crime in order to settle a score. He's been held for five months without trial and says older prisoners abuse the children. Pierre decides to investigate his case.

Claude Tangishaka, who stated that he was 13

The team travels with Pierre to Claude's home province of Bubanza, where he meets the magistrate in charge of the case. He reveals that hospital records showed Claude's alleged victims had in fact not been raped and that there was a feud between Claude's family and another family.

Claude doesn't have a birth certificate as he was born during the civil war, and Pierre needs to prove he is under 15 to get him out of jail. He travels to his home village, where Claude's mother tells him she thinks he is 14 and that he had actually been accused of inappropriately touching his neighbours' children.
Back in Mpimba prison, the team meets some of the 100 female prisoners locked in with the 3000 men. There are also 24 babies and toddlers living in the jail, nearly all of whom were born inside. One prisoner tells Navai that that some women are forced to have sex for money in order to survive, and become pregnant.

Burundi's Director of Prisons tells Unreported World that a lack of resources makes it impossible to hold women and children separately. He also admits that under-15s are being illegally imprisoned and blames corrupt magistrates and policemen and a lack of proper records.

Pierre is still negotiating with Claude's neighbours who are demanding compensation to allow Claude to return to the village. The magistrate says that Claude cannot be released if his mother does not pay the compensation, as his life will be in danger and the villagers may kill him. His mother has nothing to give. While there is no way of knowing how long Claude will be behind bars, Pierre is still fighting to get him released.

Related reading:
Burundi: Children Behind Bars Suffer Abuse Human Rights Watch
Burundi: Children Behind Bars Suffer Abuse Stolen Childhood
Children behind bars suffer abuse in Burundi Save the Children

Burundi: Child soldiers living on the edges Stolen Childhood
Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective

The Channel 4 reporter Ramita Navai writes:
'You're with Pierre, you'll be OK,' one of the prison directors told us, as we stepped into the sea of bodies swarming the courtyard in Mpimba prison. Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa is a human rights activist who works in Burundi's prisons, and Mpimba is the most notorious jail in the country. It was built for 800 inmates - there are now over 3300. There's barely room to sit.
Rapists and murderers are held alongside political dissidents and petty thieves - and they all stand aside to make way for Pierre. No other visitor is treated with the same reverence, for Pierre used to be one of them.
An ex-policeman, he was jailed for two years, wrongly accused of possessing an illegal firearm. It was in a tiny, black cell in solitary confinement when he decided that if he was ever released, he would dedicate the rest of his life to fighting injustice. But Pierre was not here to see these men, for among the heaving mass of prisoners are tiny, frightened figures in ragged clothes. Children in Burundi are kept in adult prisons and Pierre is fighting to get them out.
'Prison is not place for a child - just look around, these children live in fear,' said Pierre. At night, not even the armed guards dare enter the dark cells, bootleg alcohol fuelling the aggressive atmosphere. Outbreaks of violence are common. The criminal age of responsibility is 15, but many underage children end up in prison. Years of civil war means that birth certificates and public records are scarce, and that the justice system has been left shattered.
Almost hidden between the inmates, Pierre discovers Claude, who looks even younger than the 13 years he claims to be. Like many other boys here, he's been accused of rape. Pierre explains that most of the boys worked as household servants and were accused of rape by their employers. Pierre suspects it is a way to evade payment.
Sexual abuse is rife and there is not enough food. Nearly all of the children are being held without trial -some have been here for years.
But Pierre says she will never give up. He even gets death threats for his work, but undeterred, he continues to file his complaints and expose any corruption along the way. "Let them give me death threats, I'll never stop," he says in his gentle, calm voice. "I'm all these children have."

1 comment:

Preeti said...

Documentary - "Kids Behind Bars" reveals about the forgotten children behind the bars and they would rather not acknowledge their existence. Children are tortured in police custody. They are held in prisons in inhuman and degrading conditions. They can be raped, tortured, beaten and murdered by adults who supposedly represent the law, yet enjoy almost total immunity from it.

To watch please visit -