HDS Alumna Helps to Build 'Bridges to Justice'

Karen Tse, MDiv '00, talking to the prison director in Bujumbura, Burundi.

Karen Tse, MDiv '00, walked into a prison in the African nation of Burundi and found children: an 8-year-old boy tossed into jail for stealing a mobile phone; 12-year-old girls imprisoned for "sex crimes"; a 2-year old girl who had spent most of her short life behind bars with her mother, who was convicted of stealing two diapers and an iron.

Tse decided to have a talk with the warden.

"I said, 'You've got to let [the mother] out,' " Tse recalls of her 2006 visit. "She's been in prison for years. Her daughter's growing up in prison. It's ridiculous. He said, 'Look at my prison. There are 3,000 people here and 80 percent are waiting for trial. There are no lawyers for them. We have no public defense. Half the people here shouldn't be here. So what do we do for them?' "

As founder and CEO of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), Tse oversees programs that train hundreds of defense lawyers, persuade government officials to create fairer criminal justice systems, educate citizens about their legal rights, and set up pilot legal aid centers.

Founded in 2000, IBJ now works in more than two dozen countries and offers a platform used by more than 6,000 lawyers and human rights defenders. The group particularly focuses on enforcing due process rights and on eliminating the use of torture by law enforcement.

"Torture is the cheapest form of investigation," Tse explains. "Even though, out of the 113 developing countries that practice torture, 93 have passed laws that say that individuals have a right to a lawyer and a right not to be tortured, it's easier and cheaper for police officers to start breaking fingers if an accused person does not have a lawyer. IBJ's goal is to end torture as an investigative tool by systematically building public defense and by placing lawyers at an early stage in police stations and courtrooms."

Tse credits Harvard Divinity School with giving her the education, inspiration, and motivation she needed to start IBJ. As an attorney for the U.N. Center for Human Rights in Cambodia, she had come face-to-face with men, women, and, worst of all, children tortured and imprisoned for the smallest offenses because they had no access to a lawyer.

Horrified at what she had seen, Tse enrolled at HDS to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, "thinking I would spend some time hiding from the world," she says. Instead, her Divinity School experience showed her that it was possible to transform fear and anger into hope and good works.

"At HDS, I learned to take the pain that I had in myself, to connect it to a problem that we have in society, and to transform it into structures that lead to a better world. I learned that human beings—working together and with God—co-create history. And because of that, great things are possible."

Karen TseTse says that HDS also introduced her to the notion of "leading from within," and helped her develop that capacity in herself.

"I didn't know what leadership was," she says. "At the Divinity School, I had the chance to look within myself and understand that there were answers that I had. I discovered the kind of leader I wanted to be and what I wanted that leadership to look like."

IBJ succeeds, Tse says, largely because of the lessons she learned at the Divinity School and then brought to the fight against torture.

"At HDS, I learned that ending torture wasn't just about the legal tools," she explains. "It was about who we are as people, what we believe, and what we can do together. When I first started working in China, for instance, I brought a resource book that I used all the time with my congregation when I was interning as a minister. It was a way to bring people back to their own inner values and the kind of world they want to create. That's why our trainings are so successful. The work we do isn't just related to law. It's related to what it means to be a human being."

In Burundi's capital city, Bujumbura, IBJ set up a Defender Resource Center (DRC) where staff trained dozens of lawyers, police officers, judges, prison officials, and others in legal defense and human rights. They also conducted a "Know Your Rights" public information campaign that reached an estimated 30,000 people, raising awareness of the right to legal representation and to be free from torture. Finally, the DRC takes on cases itself, as it did recently when staff secured the release of a family of seven imprisoned for cattle theft.

The group's work has had a profound impact. On March 24, 2010, shortly after key justice officials participated in IBJ roundtables on prison overcrowding and pretrial detention, President Pierre Nkurunziza ordered the release of all prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes with a sentence of five years or less.

"Many people don't even know where Burundi is, much less care about the country," Tse says. "And yet it's a place that's ripe for action. We've seen how training, education, and setting up a system that gives people early access to counsel can really make a difference."

IBJ is in the midst of a challenging—and exciting—time. The organization is strapped for resources and stretched thin trying to maintain operations across several continents. And yet IBJ has set its sights on an audacious goal: to end the use of torture as an investigative tool around the world by the year 2024.

"IBJ has put together a plan to put all the building blocks in place to end torture as an investigative tool throughout the world in the next 12 years," Tse says. "Its achievement depends on three things: the training, empowerment, and connection of criminal defense attorneys worldwide; systematic early access to counsel; a commitment on behalf of the world community to address the problem."