Law dons, activists poke holes in property tax law

Murangwa speaks to the media. Photo: File.

The Supreme Court on Friday resumed the hearing of the petition filed by lawyer Edward Murangwa who is contesting some of the articles of the law determining the sources of revenue and property in decentralised entities.

The petitioner said that the articles in the law enacted in September last year are in contravention of the principal of social justice and welfare, as well as set excess tax that is against rights to property.

The hearing had five judges headed by Chief Justice Prof. Sam Rugege.

Murangwa, who holds a master’s degree in international criminal justice and law of human rights, was accompanied by his two lawyers, Jean Marie Vianney Rugemintwaza, and Vedaste Bahati.

Murangwa and his lawyers said that articles 19 and 20 of the said law are in violation of people’s rights because the former imposes a 50 per cent increase in tax on plot that is beyond standard size (of 300 square meters), while the latter charges an additional tax of 100 per cent on an undeveloped plot.

This, the petitioners claim, puts citizens at risk of losing their land in case they fail to meet tax obligations.

They maintained that such provisions are in contravention of fundamental human rights to land and other private property which are enshrined in articles 34, and 35 of the Constitution.

Five parties joined the case as amici curiae (friends of the court) and duly submitted their briefs to defend their positions on the matter.

They include University of Rwanda’s School of Law, Transparency International Rwanda (a non-governmental organisation), and three individuals Joseph Twiringiyemungu and Dieudonné Nzafashwanayo (both lawyers), and Innocent Ntibaziyaremye, an accountant with interest in legislation.

Apart from Twiringiyemungu who said that the contested articles are okay as are in line with the political and legal framework of the country, the rest are on the side of the petitioner.

Pie Uwimana, a lecturer of Tax Law at UR, said that if a person pays an additional 100 per cent tax on undeveloped land as stipulated in Article 20, it might drive up the cost of the plot once the owner wants to sell it. 

“Once a person pays extra 100 per cent tax on plot, they will sell the land at aa much higher price, and the investor who will develop a house on the land will charge high rent [to tenants], which will make rise the cost of living,” he said.

Most of the Friends of Court said that is discriminatory and unfair that the current law imposes higher tax rate on residential houses which is double that on commercial buildings, and 10 times more than the tax rate on industrial buildings.

Bahati, Murangwa’s lawyer said that the provisions in question are oppressing people who pay house rent, pointing out that the national housing policy’s research of 2015 indicated that 83 of people in cities in Rwanda are living in rental residential houses.

“If higher tax is imposed on residential houses, landlords will increase rent which will adversely affect tenants,” he said calling for amendment to ease taxes for the benefit of the tenant and the landlord.

Marie Immaculée Ingabire, the Chairperson of transparency International Rwanda said that the articles 19 and 20 of the law seem to penalise citizens, adding that tax law should consider the means of Rwandans, especially youth who have not yet got own assets.

“This law will make the poor poorer because in case they cannot afford to pay due tax, their property will be auctioned,” said the outspoken anti-corruption crusader.

However, Senior State Attorney Fiat Cyubahiro representing the Government of Rwanda as a respondent in the case, told the Supreme Court that the provisions of the law were not infringing on the property rights set out in the constitution.

Cyubahiro said that the constitution allows the government to set tax and determine how it should be collected.

“The additional 100 per cent tax on unutilised plot was intended curb speculation, and ensure that land is used for what it was meant,” he said. 

The Court set November 29 as the date to decide the case.

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