Ivan Pepe Matovu is passionate about cooking. In 2018, he was 24 and living with his mother. Studying hotel management, he worked as a private chef for a German national living in Kampala, Uganda.
“Life was good. I would cook for him in the morning and evening and attend classes in the middle of the day – I love cooking,” Ivan explains with a smile. “[My employer] taught me how to cook German cuisine.”
But Ivan’s life changed when he was arrested for causing grievous bodily harm, an incident which led to his friend losing an eye.
“In October 2018, I committed a crime. I had a close friend, somebody who I grew up with in my village. He provoked me and all of a sudden I lost my temper. I couldn’t control my anger, I pushed him and he lost his eye. I was in shock.
“I picked him up and took him to the hospital on a boda boda [motorbike] but I didn’t enter the hospital because I feared getting arrested. So I paid the boda boda driver and left.”
“I went and stayed with my aunt, but life wasn’t good. I wasn’t working and was inside the house all of the time. By December, I decided to move back home and say sorry to my friend. I thought – if I am to be arrested, let it happen. I knew it would be very hard for him to forgive me, but I thought I would go.’”
“Throughout January I spoke to him on the phone and he told me he had forgiven me. But I think he was planning how I could be arrested. In February, I was arrested.”
After spending two months on remand, Ivan was convicted. He was sentenced to either serve a custodial sentence of four years, or pay compensation of UGX8 million (£1,600 ) to the complainant and a court fine of UGX 500,000 (£100). An unobtainable amount for Ivan.
“As the bus approached the main prison gate, I was in total fear. I wanted to cry but I had to be a man. It was tough. I had to follow the rules, because I was in captivity.
“When I went to the registration desk to get my prison number, I saw prisoners working on the reception. Seeing the people working, they were very happy. I thought – if they can be happy, even in here, I think I can be.”
“The first two months I spent in prison were the most terrifying and darkest days of my life. I worked hard to try to make my complainant understand that what had happened was an accident and that I didn’t mean to hurt him,” Ivan explains.
“All my attempts to make peace and seek forgiveness were frustrated as he didn’t accept. He demanded UGX 50 million [£10,000] compensation."
“I realised that I had to do something. When I entered my ward, there was an inmate called Bosco Mugisha who was working as a paralegal. He was teaching guys how to present themselves in court, how to ask for bail. I was so attentive, I requested a pen and paper and was eager to listen to him. I didn’t want to miss anything he was saying.
“I asked him if he was a lawyer and he explained he wasn’t a lawyer, but he was trained to help fellow prisoners.
“After I had spent two days in prison he introduced me to Justice Defenders, through which I later enrolled as a paralegal”.
Ivan took part in Justice Defenders’ three-week paralegal training course, which equipped him with legal knowledge and skills. This meant he was able to assist fellow inmates with their cases. “I helped inmates draft legal documents, bail applications, and reviews to be submitted to the higher courts,” Ivan explains. “I also taught inmates in legal matters at the legal office.”
While working in our legal office within the prison, Ivan discovered post-trial reconciliation could help him with his own case. He reached out to Jennifer Ogol Ameo, an advocate who works with Justice Defenders. Despite already receiving his sentence, he hoped for an amicable reconciliation with his friend.
“After learning about this case, I quickly sought an audience with the trial judge to enable me to carry out a post-trial reconciliation between the parties, which the court agreed to.” Jennifer explains. “The court fine of 500,000 Uganda shillings was immediately paid to the court. The complainant also agreed to have compensation be paid on an instalment basis. We then entered into a memorandum of understanding that was endorsed by court and Ivan was released from custody.”
Now Ivan has been released from prison, he plans to continue to study hotel management. “In prison people can lose their sense, because you’re confined. But thanks to Justice Defenders, you have to get up early and shower and attend to your clients, so that helps your mind. You’re working and you’re getting used to outside life.
“I was able to save money which Justice Defenders gave paralegals as a stipend allowance. I was able to give this money to my mother to use in the renovation of our house. It has taught me how to save, it has taught me social behaviours.
“I have also sought forgiveness for my actions with my complainant and managed to regain our lost friendship”.
Justice Defenders trains paralegals both the prison staff and inmates across 13 prisons in Uganda. These paralegals assist defenceless inmates through the provision of free legal aid.