Rwanda: Lawyer Petitions Supreme Court Over Property Tax Law

12 October 2019

The Supreme Court on Friday heard a petition filed by Edward Murangwa, a Rwandan lawyer who is challenging the new law on immovable property that was enacted last year in September, saying it was unconstitutional.

The case, heard by a panel of justices led by Chief Justice Prof Sam Rugege, challenges the law establishing the sources of revenue and property of decentralised entities and governing their management.

According to the petitioner, who was represented by lawyer Jean Marie Vianney Rugemintwaza, land and other private property such as a house are inviolable fundamental human rights as set out in articles 34, and 35 of the Constitution.

He particularly singled out the provision that imposes a 100 per cent increase of taxes on undeveloped land which, he said, is not only unfair but is also in contravention of the supreme law of the land.

"A lucky university graduate buys a plot of land from the savings accumulated over time, and expects to set up a house on it once they get more financial means. Penalising them through prohibitive taxes on their plot because they have not built a house on it is unfair," he said.

"The article 20 of this law stampedes fundamental rights enshrined in article 34 and 35 of the Constitution," he said, adding that if a person is not able to pay tax for the land, it is later confiscated which greatly infringes on fundamental human rights.

Murangwa also challenged article 16 of the same law, saying that it oppresses the category of residential buildings by imposing a higher tax on it, which is up to 1 per cent of the market value of the property compared to up to 0.5 per cent for commercial buildings, and 0.1 per cent for industrial buildings.

This tax is paid annually and, in the case of residential houses, it is imposed on any other property owned by the proprietor save for one they use as their own domicile.

"Yet, the residential property is the one which fetches less income compared to the industrial and commercial component which are naturally business-oriented," he said.

However, the case was adjourned after Senior State Attorney Fiat Cyubahiro, who represented the Government of Rwanda, said that he needed more time to go through a brief that was filed by the University of Rwanda School of Law, which sought to join the case as an amicus curiae (friend of court).

The Government of Rwanda is the respondent in the case.

According to Cyubahiro, they did not know about the UR brief, asking court to be given more time to go through it and share with his colleagues in the Office of Attorney General, before the law dons could come to make their oral submissions.

The brief by the School of Law, of which Saturday Times has obtained a copy, in part states four principles they say were infringed upon by the new law; on immovable property; equality before the law, protection from discrimination, right to private property and right to private ownership of land.

During the hearing, Chief Justice Rugege said the submission by the School of Law was relevant to the case which he described as "complicated".

He also granted the request by the respondent, saying that all litigants needed to have enough time to go through the submission before the case could resume, and adjourned the case to November 1.

"Other people who want to join the case as Friends of the Court are a free to file their briefs not later than October 25," Rugege ruled.

On his part, Murangwa said that court was free to consider the submissions by the law school and any other third parties, as long as they can help the case.

Petition on law over GBV

Meanwhile, another unrelated case is before the Supreme Court in which a local civil society organisation is challenging the constitutionality of the law against Gender Based Violence.

The petition, by the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development, is challenging article 39 that legalises unlawful marriages and communal assets distribution in case of separation.

Speaking to Saturday Times, Judiciary Spokesperson Harrison Mutabazi called upon interested parties in the case to file their amicus briefs before the case gets underway on November 8.

The two constitutional challenges follow another one filed by Richard Mugisha last year, in which he challenged a new piece of legislation, saying they were not in the spirit of the Constitution.

Mugisha contested articles including those that criminalise adultery, the publication of cartoons deemed defamatory against public officials and insults or defamation against the Head of State.

Others include desertion of the marital home, concubinage, public defamation of religious rituals, and humiliation of national authorities and persons in public service.

In a subsequent ruling, the judges ruled that articles 233 and 154 criminalising humiliation of national leaders and persons in charge of public service and public defamation of religious rituals were against freedom of expression and press freedom granted by the constitution.

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