Impact Journalism Day 2016

Getting Prisoners Their Day in Court

With her Geneva-based nonprofit International Bridges to Justice, Karen Tse is taking action against misjustice and torture, and providing legal representation for even the poorest of detainees.

International Bridges to Justice founder Karen Tse.
Sébastien Agnetti, 13photo

In the political arena, Geneva is full of contrasts. While United Nations diplomats are rarely in need of anything, nongovernmental organizations are often short of funds. NGOs simply don’t have the money for generously sized offices in glazed towers, where diplomats like to go for meetings.

The globally operating and ambitious NGO International Bridges to Justice is no exception. With an annual budget of only 3 to 4 million Swiss francs ($3-$4 million), resources are tight and have to be applied in a targeted fashion.

IBJ’s dozen or so employees work in dark, confined spaces in their Geneva headquarters, far away from the elegant UN district. The furniture has seen better days, and it appears that some employees are even using their own laptops. But they’re used to going without luxuries, and know that there are more important things in life than comfortable office chairs.

Karen Tse, the founder and head of IBJ, leads by example. Born in California in 1964 to a Chinese family of immigrants from Hong Kong, the human rights activist has traversed the globe on behalf of her NGO for nearly two decades. She gains access to prisoners and meets detainees who may have been held without charge for years.

Children behind bars

She talks to prisoners who have been tortured by the police and who, despite their innocence, confessed to all they could think of just to escape physical violence. And, time after time, she meets children accused of petty crimes by the authorities and who are sent to prison.

A mother of two, Tse says that for her organization, “dealing with the accused is not about good or evil. This is solely about the principles of the state of law: No child belongs in prison; torture should be abolished; and every accused is entitled to a thorough criminal investigation and must be defended by an attorney, even if he can’t afford legal counsel.”

With IBJ, Tse – who has studied both theology and law – addresses problems from all sides. “We talk to government officials about the established law in their countries and encourage reform. We talk to prosecutors about fair criminal trials, make policemen aware of human rights, win over lawyers for pro bono cases, and inform prosecuted people about their procedural rights,” she says.

“The sooner someone has an attorney, the smaller the risk of misjustice – both for the accused and future generations,” she adds.

The workload is enormous. IBJ estimates that, worldwide, some 3 million people are imprisoned despite never being indicted by the authorities.

The NGO often goes public with its cases, like a recent one in Sri Lanka where, thanks to a lawyer engaged by IBJ, the Sri Lankan authorities had to release three men wrongly convicted of murder.

The three were convicted in April 2013 after police found a disfigured, unidentifiable body, without any lead on the perpetrator. Since a fisherman had been reported missing at the same time, the police believed the body to be the missing man and arrested three suspects from his area.

However, things became embarrassing for Sri Lankan authorities when the lawyer engaged by IBJ found the missing fisherman in Vietnam. The man came over to serve as a witness, thus proving that the men had nothing to do with the murder. If IBJ had not provided the lawyer, these innocent men would still be in jail.

Convincing with good arguments

In order to address problems in a pinpoint manner, IBJ now operates offices in seven other countries: China, Cambodia, India, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Singapore and Rwanda. Tse convinces lawyers in these countries of her cause and trains criminal barristers to help the accused.

According to its own data, IBJ cooperates with 400 associations, universities and NGOs worldwide, and has so far trained 22,000 lawyers – directing aiding 30,000 people. Moreover, it finances so-called “JusticeMakers” projects in almost 40 countries: these aim to reform local judicial systems for the better.

IBJ’s actions have encountered resistance in some countries, though. When states sense interference in their domestic affairs, they resist and closely monitor the organization’s activities.

Tse is also monitoring this, but stresses that no state is being judged and instead that they should follow the pattern of Swiss foreign policy and use neutrality, impartiality and “soft governance.”

In order to reform judicial systems, IBJ aims to convince governments with good arguments rather than political pressure.

Hilde Schwab is a member of IBJ’s advisory board. She says the organization “tries to act pragmatically instead of being confrontational,” adding that this is very important given the fragile legal system in certain countries.

In order to maintain a more intensive and global exchange of knowledge and experience with lawyers, bar associations, ministers of justice and the JusticeMakers, IBJ works in Geneva to develop an “internet justice hub.”

Using this hub, norms of criminal law in various countries will be made available and lawyers trained with learning programs, and encouraged to talk about criminal cases and impart their knowledge.

Tse has high hopes for the project. “This internet platform provides new and global solutions for a just criminal justice system,” she says.

This article first appeared in Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger.