KAMPALA, UGANDA – This April, five criminals were convicted in Ugandan courts for stealing land and homes from vulnerable orphans. IJM Uganda worked closely with local police and prosecutors, and now 12 orphans have had their rights to land restored. Several are now adults with their own families.
IJM has beeng helping widows and orphans in Uganda since 2008, but seeing this many strong verdicts in one month is "unprecedented," according to Field Office Director Jesse Rudy, who added that the importance of each conviction "cannot be overstated."
Last year, IJM Kampala did not secure any convictions, and historically, the office has never secured more than five in a 12-month period. Five convictions in a single month demonstrate that IJM’s efforts to transform the justice system – in addition to pushing individual cases through it – are working. Last year, IJM trained nearly 100 police officers, more than 650 local council leaders (officials who are critical “first responders” in many of the villages where we work), and more than 1,500 community members on the issue of property grabbing. Convictions help create a deterrence, but also empower the victims of the crime. "A conviction announces to other victims that there is hope for them as well," Jesse says. "It announces to potential perpetrators that there are real consequences to harming the vulnerable—and it announces to the world that justice for the poor is possible."
Judges Stand Up for Gregory and Others
April's convictions came in three separate cases—all stemming from the theft of land from children after their parents died. IJM collaborated with local police, courts and the state prosecutors to make arrests, bring witnesses to court and ensure these cases moved quickly to conclusions.
On April 5, two men were found guilty by the court for violently beating their stepbrother when he tried to use some of the land their father left. On April 16, an abusive uncle was ordered by the court to repay his orphaned nieces and nephews for selling their land and pocketing the profits after the children's parents died. Their elderly grandmother, who brought the case to IJM, rejoiced at the news that her grandchildren would have a safe, secure future.
The third case brought justice for Gregory* and his seven siblings, who were orphaned in 2001 when their mother died. Soon after her death, their aunt and uncle stole the land that should have gone to the children, then hid the land deed and sold most of the land for their own profit. Meanwhile, Gregory and his siblings had no money to support themselves and no help from relatives who were supposed to watch over them.
When they were older, Gregory and his siblings tried for several years to resolve the case on their own. They tried taking the matter to police and local courts, but they made no progress. IJM heard their story in 2012 and agreed to help. IJM attorneys worked with the official state prosecutor to move the court case along and hold Gregory's relatives accountable for their crimes. On April 18, 2013, after more than a year, Gregory's aunt and uncle were officially convicted in court and sent to prison.
A 'Sea Change' in the Fight for Justice
IJM Attorney Byron Mwanje believes convicting Gregory's aunt and uncle will send a powerful message to the community. He says, "This conviction gives IJM confidence that the courts will punish criminals who steal property—rather than treating these cases like simple 'family matters' or civil disputes that can be resolved in civil courts."
It is this dismissive attitude that often forces impoverished widows or orphans to give up hope after they have been abused. Widows and orphans are especially vulnerable to more powerful family members or neighbors who wield influence with the community and seem stronger than the law.
IJM is combatting this attitude and changing the system by representing individuals like Gregory in court, but also by training officials and educating the community about land rights. The record convictions earlier this year signal a promising shift in the justice movement—as police, judges and other officials stand up for the vulnerable in their community.
"To see five property grabbing convictions handed down in one month signals a sea change in the fight against property grabbing," says Jesse. "Those victims who were so easily forgotten and neglected [in the past] are being protected in ways that were unheard of a few short years ago."
Now that these orphans now have their rights restored, IJM social workers will continue to support them with regular visits and access to schooling or job training. IJM helped Gregory start a small chicken business, and he is now working hard to support his small family.