Victory for Mary Sunday

On 17 May 2018, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (the Court of Justice) ruled in favour of the complainants in ECW/CCJ/APP/26/15 – WARDC and IHRDA (on behalf of Mary Sunday) v Nigeria.  This is a very significant victory for victims of domestic violence in Nigeria and more widely.  Please read below for details of the decision.

Background

In August 2012, a woman named Mary Sunday was attacked and beaten by her fiancé, Isaac, an officer in the police force.  Mary fled, seeking refuge in a neighbour’s kitchen.  Following closely behind, Isaac seized the stove with a stew cooking upon it and brought the boiling liquid down over Mary’s head and body.  The stove subsequently exploded, setting her on fire.

Mary recovered consciousness two weeks later.  She had suffered multiple and severe injuries and burns.  Police inquiries into the incident concluded that she had intentionally inflicted the injuries upon herself.  The investigation manifestly was not carried out in an effective, impartial and independent manner; a series of requests to re-open the case was rejected and Isaac was never charged.

Commencing Proceedings

In August 2015, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC) commenced an action against Nigeria on Mary’s behalf in the Court of Justice.  Lawyers Against Poverty supported the IHRDA and the WARDC with a contribution from members of $30,000.

They submitted that the failure of state authorities effectively to investigate the allegations and prosecute the perpetrator constituted a violation of the victim’s rights under (inter alia) the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Maputo Protocol, including the rights to dignity and freedom from torture, the right to a remedy and the right to freedom from discrimination.

Preliminary Ruling

The Court of Justice ruled on preliminary issues in January 2017.  This served to increase access to justice for women in West Africa on two significant fronts. 

Firstly, the Court of Justice accepted that NGOs such as the IHRDA and the WARDC have the requisite standing to sue a state on behalf of victims of human rights breaches.  This confers a mandate for such organisations to enforce and develop human rights law in the region in other cases to come.

Secondly, the Court of Justice rejected the preliminary objection submitted by Nigeria to challenge its jurisdiction on grounds that the case concerned a domestic issue between individuals and not a matter suitable for scrutiny by a supranational judicial authority as a breach of regional and international human rights law obligations.

Judgment

The Court of Justice held that Nigeria had violated Article 7 of the African Charter (the right to a fair trial, which includes the right of every individual to have their cause heard).  Regrettably, it did not find a violation of the right to freedom from discrimination.  It ordered Nigeria to pay Mary compensation of 15 million Naira, which we understand will be used for reconstructive surgery.

The Executive Directors for the IHRDA and the WARDC, Gaye Sowe and Dr Abiola Akiyode, described the decision as “progressive and important jurisprudence for the promotion and protection of women’s rights in Nigeria, the West African sub-continent and Africa as a whole.”  Our hope is that it will make material advances in enforcing the rule of law, increasing state accountability and ending impunity for perpetrators of violence against women.

Please see the press release issued by the IHRDA for further details: https://www.ihrda.org/2018/05/press-release-ihrda-wardc-obtain-favourable-judgment-against-nigeria-in-mary-sunday-domestic-violence-case/.

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