Universal Jurisdiction
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Touanga: Nous avons maintenant la certitude qu'il existe une justice quand même dans le monde

We know now that there is justice in the world. Hello, I'm Sarah Elzas- That's Marcel Touanga, whose 28 year old son disappeared the night of May 14, 1999, in Congo-Brazzaville. He later found out that his son had been shot by public officials, along with dozens of other young men… who were returning from neighboring Kinshasa, where they had taken refuge from the civil war in their own country. The 350 victims are called the "disappeared of the Beach" because they came through the Brazzaville river-port called the Beach. On Wednesday, the French Supreme Court affirmed Touanga's right to take those responsible to court… in France, even though they are Congolese, and the events took place in Congo.

Victim 1: La c'est la joie- au fond de moi, au fond du cœur- vraiment c'est la joie, que justice soit faite correctement

It's a joy- that justice is going to be done correctly, says this man, who was one of two survivors of the killings. A bullet passed through his head, but didn't kill him. He managed to drag himself from under the bodies, and escape. He eventually made his way to France, where he joined with Marcel Touanga, who represents the families of the victims, and another survivor, to look for justice.

Sulvert: Based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, for crimes of torture, you can file a case in France, even though the crime was committed abroad

Jeanne Sulvert is a lawyer with the International Federation for Human Rights, which prepared the case along with other human rights groups in France and Congo. The initial investigations lead to the indictment of two Congolese officials, including the director of the police. Sulvert explains that cases like these can be filed in any country that has ratified the Torture Convention. France incorporated the Convention into its criminal code in 1994

Sulvert: So since '94, any alleged crime of torture, committed anywhere in the world, as soon as the person is present on French territory, French courts have jurisdiction. So, on that basis we brought a case on behalf of the victims in France, based on the fact that the alleged perpetrator had his home and house in France- he was living in France. So we brought this case. And once the case was ongoing, the diplomatic and political relationship between France and Congo became very tense and sensitive.

The organizations representing the victims have denounced political interference in this case- which lead one defendant escaping from a Paris jail in the middle of the night in 2004. But the Supreme Court's decision this week put an end to any political meddling- by saying that the case can go forward.

Sulvert: The main principal is when national justice is unwilling or unable to prosecute or to investigate, there should be a way for victims to find another forum

Fifteen officials were tried in Brazzaville criminal court in August 2005- but they were all acquitted. Sulvert says that applying universal jurisdiction- using foreign courts to find justice- began in earnest in 1998, when the Chilean General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in England and faced charges there and in Spain.

Sulvert: Since 1998, there's been a very regular and progressive use of the mechanism of universal jurisdiction. There's this idea that any court should be able to prosecute torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, anywhere in the world.

The International Criminal Court is not retroactive, so it could not hear the Brazzaville Beach case, because the events happened before 2002. The European Court for Human rights only hears cases against governments- and this is a case against individuals. So the lawyers got a bit creative in figuring out who could be prosecuted on French soil, though this isn't the such first case:

Sulvert: There's ongoing maybe something like 15 cases in France involving perpetrators of torture, in Cambodia, Rwanda- but there's also a number of cases in Europe.

Now that the French courts have agreed to allow the case of the "disappeared of the Beach" to continue- the lawyers and victims will get back to work on the investigation. But at least it's going forward. This victim says he is waiting for the day of the trial and the final victory.

Victim 2: Ma satisfaction sera totale le jour du procès, a la victoire finale. J'attends que ca quoi.

This piece aired on January 11, 2007, on Radio France International and January 12, 2007 on Network Europe.

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France.