Holding the powerful to account

A day in the life of Ugandan lawyer Lora Atim, working in Gulu to protect widows and orphans from land grabbing and end impunity for violence against the poor

‘As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.’ President Nelson Mandela

The inspiration for the lawyers working at International Justice Mission Gulu (IJM) connects with this call from Nelson Mandela. I am one of two staff lawyers with IJM Gulu in northern Uganda, given prosecutorial powers by the Director of Public Prosecution of the Republic of Uganda to protect widows from land grabbing. All our clients are poor widows and orphans whose properties are in danger of being seized. This can require urgent intervention but we have a myriad of other challenges; heavy backlog on the part of judicial officers, adjournments and slow investigations by the Police.

On a typical day, first thing in the morning, I hold an in-depth discussion with investigators about case file content, their preparation and team safety. I then meet IJM’s lead responsible for supporting a client’s aftercare support. IJM addresses property-grabbing holistically; not only is a client’s property fully restored with title deeds, but they are supported on a path to restore their mental and emotional wellbeing. This includes income generation, psycho-social support, medical care, housing, food aid, educational support to the orphans, health and court preparation to enable them be self-sustaining.

When attending court sessions in the Amuru District, about 40 miles north of Gulu, I start my day much earlier and endure a 90-minute ride on a narrow dirt road which, on a surfaced road, would take around 30 minutes. As if navigating pot-holed roads wasn’t enough of a challenge in bringing justice to the poor, a rainy day could result in government judicial officers not turning up in court. Inclement weather can also bring public transportation to a halt and it is the clients and witnesses’ turn to not show up in court. Just recently, on my way to Amuru Court, I found the road blocked by a truck stuck in mud. I had no option but to drive back to the office, not meeting the day’s objective.

In April to August this year, we’ve heard 108 adjournments of cases. Complainants can be intimidated by relatives and local leaders, causing them to lose interest or commitment to pursuing their cases. Duty-bearers also are not well-equipped technically or logistically to play their part in resolving cases. For instance, medical workers skip completing medical forms accurately, compromising key evidence. Others refuse to testify, leading to failure of the case. Instances of corruption in some government offices is another hurdle to seeking justice for the poor. Sometimes the accused persons collude with the authorities to frustrate cases. We have only one magistrate serving four districts where IJM operates, which slows down the whole process.

On average, up to six cases can be heard in the court in a day, so I leave my office around 8am, with an aftercare member of staff – who will give psycho-social support to clients and witnesses to help prepare them for court – accompanied by IJM security personnel to ensure their safety.

Upon reaching court, I brief again clients and witnesses, some of whom are intimidated, on what they can expect to happen. Most are victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion which ravaged northern Uganda 20 years ago and traumatised the local populace to the point of incoherency and loss of memory. Over the course of the conflict, people were displaced from their homes, often into displacement camps. They returned to their homes only to discover their land and property illegally occupied or boundaries changed. Given this context, I spend a lot of time on witness preparation.

Amuru Court hears civil cases first. So I litigate these in the morning until around 1pm. After an hour-long lunch break, the court resumes to hear the criminal cases. Most days I go without lunch as some perpetrators own businesses in Amuru town. My clients’ proximity to these shops can pose a risk to their lives and IJM pays for their lunch. The land-grabbing perpetrators see us as enemies. In cities, perpetrators tend to take a distant view, but in rural areas it is personalised and hence the potential for violence.

After lunch, the court proceeds with hearings and because we have invested time in building strong ties with court clerks, IJM’s cases are taken up first. This give us ample time for travelling back to our office.

Between 3pm and 5pm I am done with court sessions. IJM drivers and security personnel will drive clients and witnesses to their homes and I head back to my home in Gulu. On days when there is no court hearing, I visit clients at their homes and prep witnesses for upcoming cases. Many of the clients live as far as 45 miles from Gulu, in hard-to-reach areas connected by unpaved roads, so it is a whole day’s work.

On a daily basis, I deal with case files covering the offences of criminal trespass, assault, grievous bodily harm, threatening violence and malicious property damage among other property ownership issues.

A contributory factor in land disputes is a lack of community access to information and knowledge of land ownership laws. We have therefore carried out community education to 300 local community leaders on land rights and Ugandan law with the expectation that they in turn teach this to other community members. I also teach them about violence against women, an IJM pilot project.

While these cases are of a criminal nature, most of them are civil because they ensue from such land disputes. Some require alternative dispute resolution such as mediation, reconciliation and arbitration. For the criminal cases, perpetrators are held accountable for their actions through courts of law. However, IJM is involved in addressing both criminal and civil cases.

Despite the challenges, one of the significant successes we register is when widows and orphans, whose cases are completed by us, can live without fear of losing their lives or livelihood. It sends a clear message to the community that perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions. Since joining in July 2016, I have worked on 19 criminal and 12 civil cases; with 15 perpetrators restrained, 16 charged, four convicted and 146 victims relieved. When our clients recover their land, joy, laughter and hope beam on their faces and this keeps us going. 

THE INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE MISSION

Since 2012 IJM lawyers in Gulu have enabled 565 widows and orphans to return to their land and build hope-filled futures. They’ve helped convict 30 perpetrators, proving that justice for the poor is possible and that systems can change. IJM Gulu is now piloting a programme tackling Intimate Partner Violence. To learn more, email Gulu’s Field Office Director, Christopher Marshall (cmarshall@ijm.org). To help all IJM lawyers fight violence and injustice you can also donate at www.ijmuk.org/give

A CASE FILE NEVER CLOSED: JUSTINA ATOO

Justina Atoo was married to Raymond Ochieng. They had nine children together; four boys and five girls. Their pleasant life together all changed when Raymond passed away and her neighbour took a portion of their property, destroying her crops and threatening her that if she didn’t give up the land, he would arrange for soldiers to shoot her entire family. Justina contacted the local authorities, who all ruled in her favour. Her neighbour appealed the ruling up to the sub county court who sided with him, in part due to his influence in the area.

Sixty four years old by this time, Justina began to despair. She was worried that her home and livelihood would be taken from her – a death blow not only to her, but also the grandchildren she cares for. With desperation creeping in, her case was referred to IJM in 2013 as it reached the magistrates’ court. IJM prepared her case in detail, supported and represented her despite the threats.

Within one year the case was resolved with the court giving judgment in Justina’s favour and ordering her land be clearly demarcated. Due in part to his power, her neighbour hasn’t been jailed for this crime, but Justina has the redress she needs. We continue to walk alongside Justina even after the judgment, making sure that she is recovering, has seeds and all that she needs. Trauma counselling plus education support for the family also continue – when we take on a client, they become family.

 

Author details: 
Lora Atim

Lora Atim is a staff lawyer at International Justice Mission Gulu