Natalie Rea in Afghanistan


In 1996, Natalie Rea, then an attorney with the Criminal Appeals Bureau of The Legal Aid Society of New York, traveled to Rwanda to serve as an observer to the Rwandan genocide trials. While fulfilling her duty there, Rea was shocked to learn that only a handful of defense lawyers were available to represent the more than 150,000 men and women who were being held in detention as suspects of crimes of genocide. Moved by the plight of these detainees, Rea immediately mobilized a small group of U.S. defense lawyers to provide them with representation, obtained funding and founded the nongovernmental organization Legal Aid Rwanda. In just three months, Legal Aid Rwanda provided representation to approximately 500 detainees, most of whom had been incarcerated for almost four years without having ever met a lawyer. By the time the project ended in July 1998, Legal Aid Rwanda’s intervention had led to the release of 30 detainees for lack of evidence, at least one of whom was acquitted after trial.

While many aspects of the Legal Aid Rwanda project were successful, it failed to achieve one of its key objectives: to assist the implementation of a new “plea-bargaining” provision. In an effort to deal with the enormous volume of cases related to the Rwandan genocide, the international community had helped introduce a form of plea-bargaining into law, permitting sentences to be reduced for those who confessed their crimes and informed on their accomplices. Given these circumstances, one of Legal Aid Rwanda’s mandates was to explain to detainees the advantages and disadvantages of pleading guilty under the new law. However, few detainees agreed to plead guilty.

As Rea and her team quickly discovered, the plea-bargaining statute had been drafted without sufficient consideration of local conditions. Most detainees feared being ostracized from their communities if they admitted to such heinous offenses. Additionally, Rwanda’s legal system is based on civil law, which does not require the government to disclose the charges against a defendant until a case is transferred to court for trial. At that point, the benefits of plea bargaining —judicial economy for the government and shorter sentences for the accused—no longer exist. Drawing upon her experience in Rwanda, Rea developed a key component of the ILF’s core vision: laws must be drafted and implemented in ways that respect the historical, practical and cultural context of each country. With this lesson in mind, Rea founded a new organization, the International Legal Foundation, and began to lay the groundwork for a public defender system in Afghanistan, first, by building ties in the Afghan legal community in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan in 2001, and then by completing a survey of the customary laws of Afghanistan. 

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