African Court awards compensation for rights violations to Rwanda’s “Nelson Mandela”, Victoire Ingabire

When Victoire Ingabire was released from jail during September 2018, some of her many followers described her as the “Nelson Mandela” of Rwanda. She immediately called for other political prisoners to be freed in addition to those released with her. She said she was prepared to return to prison if that was the price to be paid to win freedom of speech and human rights in Rwanda. This week the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights awarded Ingabire significant reparations for the infringement of her rights by Rwanda and ordered that state to pay the reparations in full within six months or face escalating interest.

Read judgment on the African Court's website here (PDF)

WHEN Victoire Ingabire said she was willing to go back to prison if that was the cost of bringing human rights to Rwanda, it was no idle comment. Shortly after she and more than 2 000 other prisoners were freed during September 2018, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said Ingabire risked re-imprisonment. Though he did not mention her directly, Kagama said the presidential pardon he had granted should not be interpreted as giving in to pressure to “free political prisoners” as some people claimed.

Local media quoted Kagama as alluding to Ingabire while not saying her name, and as warning that “those who believe they had been freed on account of foreign pressure could land back in prison.”

Ingabire, who had worked in exile from the Netherlands for many years, returned to Rwanda in 2010 to head the UDF-Inkingi coalition. (The United Democratic Forces of Rwanda is a coalition of opposition political groups.) She was arrested soon after her return. Sentenced to 10 years in prison by the high court, she appealed to the supreme court which increased her sentence to 15 years.

While in prison, she approached the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and that court issued a judgment in her favour almost exactly a year ago. The court found among others, that Rwanda had violated her defence rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as her rights to freedom of expression and opinion under both the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In that judgment the court ordered Rwanda to restore her rights and to report within six months as to what action it had taken.

Now the court has gone a step further: Ingabire had also asked for reparations from Rwanda and the court has unanimously agreed that Rwanda must pay up.

An important footnote here is that Rwanda, though it received all the court’s notifications in relation to her reparations case, did not respond. Nor was it represented at the African Court when the matter was argued and so the court decided it would consider the matter in the absence of one of the chief parties.

In its judgment just released, the court said when it considered applications for reparations resulting from human rights violations, it took into account the principle that “a State found guilty of an internationally wrongful act is required to make full reparation for the damage caused to the victim.” At the same time the court operated on the principle that the applicant (Ingabire in this case) had to provide evidence of the reparations that were required and of the “causal link” between the violation and the prejudice caused.

Ingabire had asked the court to order Rwanda to annul the criminal conviction and sentence against her, and that since her rights to a fair trial were violated, the most appropriate form of reparations in this case would be for her to be freed.

The judges said they could not “expunge” the sentence, since that would require that her conviction be quashed and the sentence set aside, something the court itself could not do.

But she had more success with her claim for reparations. For her proved legal and associated costs (material prejudice) Rwanda was order to pay FRw 10,230,000. Some of her claims were not upheld as the court felt she did not produce enough evidence of the material damages and prejudice she suffered.

Most interesting for court-watchers, however, is the way the judges handled her reparation claim for “moral prejudice” and in particular the impact on her family of her treatment by the state.

Ingabire said that since her imprisonment “her dreams and ambitions as well as her political and family life have been totally shattered; that she had been arrested on several occasions, ridiculed and insulted and her honour dragged in the mud. Her reputation and morale have been seriously undermined as well as those of … her family, her husband and her three children.”

A denigration campaign was orchestrated against her in the media and by leading politicians, calling her a “proponent of genocide”. She also detailed the suffering she experienced in detention. These and others on her list of moral injuries were accepted by the court, which found she should be compensated.

As to her family, Ingabire said her husband for example was “profoundly affected and traumatized by her arrest and subsequent events”, and that this led to him become paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

The court accepted her claims about the suffering experienced by her family, backed by medical reports from a specialist clinic in The Netherlands. 

The judges said that even though she had now been released via a presidential pardon, she was still entitled to “monetary compensation” for the violation of her rights, and she was awarded an additional FRw 55 000 000 as compensation for the “moral prejudice” she and her family have suffered.

In a television interview after her release, Ingabire detailed some of her experiences including the fact that for five of the eight years she was held behind bars, she was kept on her own, an experience she described as “very difficult”. Her organisation also issued a formal statement welcoming her release and explaining the role of the African Court in finding her rights were violated.