On December 1, 2011, The East African Court of Justice (EACJ, Court) held that eligible applicants may file a reference alleging violations of the East African Community Treaty (Treaty) without first exhausting local remedies, and further issued a declaration that Rwanda breached the Treaty when it unlawfully detained Lieutenant-Colonel Rugigana Ngabo of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The case Plazeda Rugumba v. Attorney General of the Republic of Rwanda was initially filed by Lt. Col Ngabo’s wife in November 2010, urging the Court to declare that the government of Rwanda detained her husband incommunicado—without means of communication. Lt. Col Ngabo was not placed in preventive detention under lawful authority until January 2011, more than two months after the reference was filed.

The Court found that Rwanda violated Articles 6(9) and 7(2), which broadly oblige Rwanda as a party to the Treaty to adhere to principles of universal human rights through democracy and good governance. Mrs. Ngabo’s reference also sought to hold the Secretary General of the East African Community accountable for breach of Article 29 of the Treaty, specifically for failing to take necessary measures to oversee the compliance of Rwanda with the Treaty regarding the arrest and detention of Lt. Col Ngabo. The Court, however, dismissed the allegation against the Secretary General of the East African Community for lack of notice.

Mrs. Ngabo’s reference alleged that her husband was unlawfully detained incommunicado without trial as a threat to national security. According to Mrs. Ngabo’s application, her efforts to obtain information about the whereabouts of her husband had been futile to that point, and her husband had been denied his rights to visitation by either a health professional or even the Red Cross. In response, Rwanda denied the allegations, instead arguing that the Lt. Col Ngabo was in “preventive detention” in a military prison where the government extended him full rights within the perimeters of the Rwandan laws, including visitation rights. The Rwandan government conceded, however, that it did not lawfully move to place Lt. Col Ngabo in preventive detention until January 2011, after Mrs. Ngabo filed the reference before the EACJ. Lt. Col Ngabo’s detention from his August 2010 arrest to that point was found by the Military Court of Rwanda to constitute a breach of Articles 90 though 100 of the Rwandan Code of Criminal Procedure, which broadly govern custody pending investigation. More significantly, the Rwandan government challenged the jurisdiction of the Court to interfere with domestic affairs by hearing cases implicating human rights issues that are pending before local courts.

The Court rejected these arguments, holding that the jurisdictional challenge was premised on a mistaken interpretation of Mrs. Ngabo’s application to the Court. Mrs. Ngabo has sought a declaration that Rwanda breached its obligation under the Treaty. To that end, the reference implicates the Court’s Article 27(1) power to interpret the Treaty and ensure compliance. Significantly, the Treaty does not have an express provision that mandates that applicants exhaust all other remedies before seeking a remedy from the Court for an alleged violation of the Treaty. As such, the Court may entertain the reference even if the matter is pending before the Rwandan courts. The fact that Rwandan courts took action—notably, after the reference was filed—does not oblige the Court to then relinquish its exclusive jurisdiction to interpret Treaty and its mandate to ensure compliance.

The Court does not typically interfere with the states’ enforcement of its criminal law. However, in light of the absence of an express provision barring the jurisdiction of the Court over cases where applicants did not exhaust local remedies, as well as the Court’s exclusive jurisdiction to review alleged violations of the Treaty, the Court decided to entertain the reference. Accordingly, the Court found that Rwanda detained Lt.-Col in violation of Article 6, which restricts deprivation of individual’s liberty only in circumstances where the individual has violated established laws of the state, and Article 7, which grants individuals the right to be heard and go before trial within a reasonable time before an impartial court or tribunal.

Consequently, the Court issued a declaration stating the Rwanda breached Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty. By declaring that applicants do not need to exhaust local remedies, the Court effectively expands the number of individuals who can file applications with the Court, and possibly increase the volume of cases that the Court considers. Furthermore, the decision indicates that although the Court does not directly interfere with domestic criminal matters, it retains jurisdiction to review the actions of states in the enforcement of their domestic in areas where compliance with the Treaty is implicated. As such, the Court’s decision in this case indicates a balance between the state’s rights to implement its laws and the Court’s mandate to ensure compliance with the Treaty.