Justice for Sale: Interview with documentary filmmakers, Ilse and Femke van Velzen


On March 27, documentary filmmakers, Ilse and Femke van Velzen, showed their latest documentary  about the Criminal Justice system in the Congo titled Justice for Sale at the Movies that Matter Film Festival in The Hague. The film documents the prosecution of a suspect accused of rape and the struggle of his lawyer for a Fair Trial and Due process of law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Read more about this documentary and the Award-winning film makers relentless efforts for justice in Congo.

In Justice for Sale we meet Claudine, a young and courageous human rights lawyer who investigates the case of Masamba, a soldier who is convicted of rape. She discovers that he was imprisoned without any credible evidence. In Claudine’s quest to obtain justice she uncovers a legal system in which human rights principles such as the right to a fair trial and due process are breached. The documentary reveals how ‘perpetrators’ become victims due to an inadequate criminal justice system.

After the screening, Ms. Ilse van Velzen kindly answered some questions during the Q & A session.

Here follows a small part of the discussion:

How is Masamba, the main character of your documentary, doing now and are you checking up on him?

We do bring all of our films back to the Congo to share it with the public over there and this gives us an opportunity to check up on Masamba. We have been doing that weekly since we have a local friend who has been working with us for the last seven years. He has been bringing food to Masamba every week because without this he will not get enough food inside the prison. The government does provide food to prisoners but a lot of times it is not enough.

Do you support him financially?

We just support him with food as an extra supplement. He will normally only get a cup of rice or beans and will then have to beg with the other inmates. Normally, inmates get extra food from family or friends who visit them in prison. Masamba is imprisoned in a city where he doesn’t know anyone. Nobody is bringing him extra food or taking care of him or even visits him. This can also be dangerous because when no one knows you’re there they can easily make you disappear. So it is quite important that someone checks up on him regularly. And for Masamba, it is really important that he has someone who he can consider his friend. We decided that we are not going to visit the prison ourselves because this might put Masamba at risk. When we as filmmakers from a Western country visit the prison, it can create animosity among the prisoners as many might feel that Masamba is getting all this attention. This is a situation we obviously want to avoid at all costs.

Can Masamba appeal his case?

We are trying to fundraise money from people who have seen the film and as a result are willing to donate money.  Also, a Dutch refugee organization (Stichting Vluchtelingenwerk), Cordaid and the Dutch Lottery helped us out. We have a budget now. Last month we screened the film and spoke to different lawyers in the Eastern part of the Congo as well as in Kinshasa to review the case and to represent Masamba at the Highest court in the Congo. This is the only way to get a Higher Appeal. This will happen, but of course it still is uncertain that he will be released based on the evidence, but things do look well. The Ministry of Justice has seen the film and the highest judge from the military court has seen the film and they all took notice that great errors have been made during the legal procedure. He should never have been convicted. Based on the new evidence that will be presented, I believe the chances are high that he will be released. For him, the situation in prison is still miserable as the prison conditions are a struggle every day. We hope that he can hang in there and that he will be released.

Because in Congo, a ten year prison sentence is almost equal to a death sentence?


Is his case an exception or is this a structural failure of the criminal justice system in the Congo?

In 2008, we filmed a Military court case where ten different soldiers were on trial for different crimes including rape. We filmed all of these trials. Back then, Masamba’s case only drew local attention.  After filming, we were convinced that there was no evidence to convict him. When he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison we were flabbergasted. And at that point, we went back to the Netherlands and made a rough cut of the film. Afterwards, we decided to return to the Congo and we showed the film to lawyers and human rights organizations as well as different NGO’s working in the legal field and asked their opinion. To our surprise, we found out that this happened often and that this was not a one of a kind case. When we found out about this, we knew that we had to make a film on this particular case even though many organizations, especially Western organizations, advised against it. In their minds, it would have been better to make a film focusing on the rights of the victims instead who struggle to get perpetrators convicted in the courts.  We were told that when you make a film about wrongly accused convicts it would only endanger the fight against sexual violence. But to us, this is not the discussion. In our opinion, it is important that organizations and NGO’s that take over criminal legal procedures do this in accordance with legal principles. People should only be convicted when there is enough evidence.

Is your film really a conviction of NGO’s then who give a great deal of support and then things go wrong?

Not really. Our film is about injustice. After doing more and more research, we do find it very important to highlight in a subtle way these issues. NGO’s do a lot of great work but we want to start up the discussion with them as well as with other international organizations in the Congo who interfere in the criminal justice system but fail to carry out these legal procedures in a right manner. NGO’s organize mobile courts where they bring in rape cases in which they give all legal assistance to victims but not to the accused who as a result don’t stand a chance for a fair trial. In this way, they are unable to properly prepare their case because they simply don’t have the means to do so. This ultimately leads to a very imbalanced legal system. By making this film, we’re trying to get them to not only focus on the victims but equally on the perpetrators.