Mob justice in Bukavu

This week there was another case of mob justice in Bukavu. On December 20th, a gang of thieves robbed and killed the student Justin BAHATI as he was walking home in the Kadutu neighborhood. The culprits are were one of the more notorious gangs in town, called “The Finders.” Apparently, they insisted that he give them his bag with his laptop computer – he refused, as the bag contained his senior thesis that he was finishing to graduate from the ISP (Superior Pedagogic Institute, the teacher’s college). In the ensuing tug-o-war, he thieves stabbed him and left him to die. He was rushed to the hospital, but succumbed to his wounds the following morning.

Students in Bukavu tend to stick together – under the RCD occupation, they used to burn tires in the streets and lead demonstrations, especially to protect one of their own. (Unfortunately, when it comes to sustained political pressure, the various student unions always seem to be co-opted by the authorities). This time, they held true to their reputation. A group of students rushed down to the nearby police station, where the alleged killers were being held. According to the human rights group ICJP, the students threatened to burn down the market if the police didn’t hand over the bandits. They finally complied, handing over 14 members of the Finders, who were taken to the ISP campus. There, on the street in front of the school, one of the thugs was doused with gasoline and set alight when he tried to flee. The others were taken to the basketball court that is surrounded by student dorms and severely beaten with stones, sticks and knives. (See here for Radio Okapi’s version of the events.)

This is not the first time such mob justice has taken place in Bukavu. This year alone, there have been at least four other such incidents in town. On August 26, a mob caught the leader of a gang of thugs in Kadutu and beat him to death. Several days later, a thief was captured by the population in the Ibanda neighborhood and stoned to death. Around the same time, a group of youths almost killed a Congolese army colonel who was lurking about a round-about in Kadutu with an AK-47 in civilian clothes. On November 4, two alleged robbers were captured by a local mob in Kadutu and burned to death.

It is not surprising that people would take justice into their own hands. No one has any faith in the justice system – most of the people in jail have not been sentenced or even charged due to lack of funds and the torpor of the judicial system; those who have been sentenced often escape. A few examples:

  • In July last year, one of the alleged killers of journalist Serge Maheshe escaped from Bukavu prison during a Catholic mass held there.
  • On November 24 of this year, the alleged assassin of Didace Namujimbo, another Radio Okapi journalist, escaped from the jail cell of the 10th military region in Bukavu just five days after his arrest.
  • Also in November 2009, 90 prisoners escaped from the Kindu prison in Maniema province.
  • Two army officers, a major and a colonel, escaped from the Bukavu prison on 9 January 2009. They had been arrested for treason and leading a rebel movement.
  • On August 1, 2007, 115 of the 155 prisoners of the Uvira prison escaped. On April 9, 2009, 222 of the 225 inmates of the same prison were freed by armed gunmen.
  • 24 prisoners escaped from the Mbandaka prison on July 15, 2007 after they noticed that the three prison guards had left their posts. Between 10 and 15 escapes are registered each month in the Mbandaka prison.
  • Several high-ranking CNDP officers escaped from Bukavu prison in July 2006, including Colonel Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, who had been sentenced for child recruitment.

The most famous prison break was probably the escape of the alleged assassins of President Laurent Kabila from the Makala prison in 2001. According to some of the people at the prison who were there at the time, they walked out of the prison to a waiting car, which then took them to a boat they used to cross the river to Congo-Brazzaville. Not even the assassins of the president are safely locked away.

Little wonder, therefore, that if you really want to punish someone, you execute the sentence yourself. It will take years to change this attitude; above all, it will require serious reforms of the judicial system. For this, the government will have to spend more than the 1% of its budget (around $6 million per year) that it current allocates to the ministry of justice.