Landmark Property Grabbing Sentence Protects Ugandan Family

After the court ruled, Margaret (far right) said, "We feel so happy because IJM did for us what we did not expect."
After the court ruled, Margaret (far right) said, "We feel so happy because IJM did for us what we did not expect."

KAMPALA, UGANDA – On Friday, justice was delivered in a landmark case for Margaret and her sisters. Her deceptive half-brother was found guilty for stealing their land and was sentenced to 26 months in prison—the longest sentence ever in an IJM Uganda case.

The court's decision concluded years of struggle for the women. After the sentencing, one of Margaret's sisters told IJM, "I am so happy, I cannot express my joy!"

Greed Divides a Family

Margaret is part of a large extended family who depended on homes and land passed down from her father. The family relied on his plot of farmland for food and for income to cover school fees, medical care and taking care of their children.

But after her father's death, Margaret's half-brother forged paperwork to transfer all of the land into his name. He sold off the five acres of farmland and began pressuring family members to either buy their homes from him or leave. One of his father's wives left her home and moved away because of his intimidation.

Margaret worried her brother would soon sell her house out from under her, and she knew she had to act. She asked local government leaders to intervene, but they didn't want to get involved. Over time, it became increasingly difficult for Margaret and her sisters to provide for their children—but their brother refused to return the property that was rightfully theirs.

A Groundbreaking Decision

In November 2012, a neighbor referred Margaret and her sisters to IJM Kampala for legal help in stopping their greedy brother. By this point, their brother had disappeared with money from the illegal sale, but the women worried he would return at any time to sell their homes. "We never expected to see him again," remembers Margaret. IJM worked with police over the next few months to locate the man and arrest him—stopping him before he could sell off the homes his sisters needed to survive.

Over the next nine months, IJM lawyers worked with state prosecutors to present Margaret's case in court. They showed how her brother had clearly falsified legal documents—including forging his father's signature for a date three years after his death. Ugandan courts often dismiss property grabbing cases, but the evidence in Margaret's case showed such clear deceit the magistrate moved it forward.

"Such conduct does not deserve leniency, and the punishment should serve to deter others who would want to do the same."
Ugandan court magistrate

In January 2014, the court magistrate handed down her verdict: Margaret's brother was guilty for the forgery-related crimes, stealing his family's property, and denying the women their rights. The magistrate sentenced him to 26 months in prison, saying, "Such conduct does not deserve leniency, and the punishment should serve to deter others who would want to do the same."

This strong sentence is the longest ever secured for IJM Uganda. It was also IJM's first conviction based solely on forgery-related charges, and demonstrates the court's new commitment to treating property grabbing itself as a serious crime with serious consequences.

The precedent-setting decision could protect many more vulnerable families in the future. Deputy Field Office Director Kathryn Wilkes commended the court for sending a clear message that powerful people "can no longer steal from widows and orphans with impunity."

"The Law Is On Their Side"

Over the next few months, IJM will work with the family and with the people who bought the land as a result of the forgery to set things right. The family will be able to divide the land fairly or come up with a solution that benefits everyone.

Throughout the case, IJM social workers have worked with Margaret and her sisters to help provide for their families. Margaret has set up a small piggery, and other sisters have small businesses or farm projects.

"After our father died, we were struggling to provide for our children," Margaret says. "But now that IJM has taken our case, they have helped us so much. [They] brought us to a place we didn't think we would get to."

IJM Kampala Director of Legal Alice Muhairwe-Mparana has already seen great changes in Margaret's family and believes their story will help protect other vulnerable women and children.

"These women are now spreading the gospel about their victory and are encouraging others to take action to do the same," she says. "Now they know that the law is on their side."

Africa, Illegal Property Seizure