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Rwanda: Prosecution of Hutu rebel leaders for involvement in the Rwandan genocide - full text

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A court in Stuttgart, Germany on May 9 began to hear evidence in the trial of Rwandans Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni on 55 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges related to the pair's role as leader and deputy respectively of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel ethnic Hutu Rwandan group operating from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Immediate context

Murwanashakya, nicknamed "The Doctor" for his PhD in economics, and his deputy Musoni had been arrested on November 17 2009, both having lived in Germany since the mid 1990s. The two had fought on the Hutu side during the Rwandan civil war, and Murwanyashakya had been arrested previously in connection with an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda case in April 2006. They had subsequently formed the FDLR from among the many Hutu fighters who had fled into neighbouring countries at the end of the war. The FDLR's stated mission was to overthrow the (Tutsi) government of Rwanda, but the organization now operated principally as an armed group in the North and South Kivu provinces of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), funding itself through control of local gold and mineral extraction operations. The group was estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,500 active combatants, many of them Hutu former soldiers accused of involvement in the Rwandan genocide. Murwanashakya and Musoni were accused of using internet connections and mobile phones to mastermind the FDLR's operations from Germany. Through these means, the pair were alleged to have ordered the murder of over 200 civilians, the conduct of mass rape as a war crime and the burning of Congolese villages. They were also accused of recruiting child soldiers and of ordering the use of civilians as human shields.

The trial was the first in Germany to be conducted under a 2002 "universal jurisdiction" law, which allowed German courts to hear cases pertaining to crimes committed by foreigners outside (and with no necessary connection to) the country. Similar laws had been enacted and led to prosecutions in France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States. Though projected to end in late June, commentators forecast that the court case could extend for up to a year; if found guilty, the defendants could be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Reaction and outlook

The pair's defence team said the charges were politically motivated, and protested that the UN had unfairly blocked access to documents relating to the trial. Several international organizations, conversely, welcomed the trial, with Human Rights Watch's Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner calling it "a powerful statement that courts - even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred - can play a decisive role in combating impunity". UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon hailed the trial's possible implications for regional security, noting that "Legal action against FDLR leaders ... reinforces efforts to demobilise and repatriate FDLR fighters, which would significantly contribute to stabilising the eastern DRC."The case was one of several relating to alleged FDLR operatives and supporters currently before the courts in Rwanda and abroad, and evidenced the continuing importance to Rwanda of combating dissident groups outside its borders. Rebel activity flourished among Rwandan refugee populations and unemployed local youths in border regions of Rwanda and Uganda, as well as in Rwanda itself. A third FDLR leader, executive secretary Callixte Mbarushimana, had in January been extradited from Paris to face possible trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Separately, an international warrant had been issued for the arrest of former army officer Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a one-time ally of Rwandan president Paul Kagame. A UN report in early 2011 had identified Nyamwasa as the co-founder, with Patrick Karegeya, of a 200-strong coalition of Rwandan-affiliated rebel armed fighters, representing the Forces Patriotiques pour la Libé ration du Congo (FPLC), the Mai-Mai Sheka, the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, and the FDLR-Soki as well as the FDLR, in the North and South Kivu provinces of the DRC.

A prosecution case was also due to recommence on June 20 against Victoire Ingabire, leader of the opposition FDU-Inkingi grouping, who was accused of providing financial support to the FLDR. Ingabire faced further charges, along with former FDLR commanders Col. Tharcisse Nditurende, Lt.-Col. Noeli Habiyaremye, Lt. Jean Marie Vianney Karuta and Major Vital Uwumuremyi - of forming a group, the Coalition of Defence Forces (CDF), which the government in Kigali claimed was aimed at destabilizing Rwanda. Ingabire, who had been arrested in April 2010, denied the charges and called them politically motivated. Human Rights Watch in October 2010 had called on the Rwandan authorities, in connection with the case, to allow the opposition to "carry out their legitimate activities".

Direct military action by Rwanda against such rebel groups remained a controversial prospect in the Great Lakes region. Previous incursions into the DRC by Rwandan and Ugandan forces, under the pretext of combating rebel groups, had led to violence, looting, and ongoing occupation of border territories. One 2004 campaign ostensibly against Hutu rebels, led by the Kigali-backed Rwandan Tutsi leader Brig.-Gen. Laurent Nkunda, had led to the occupation of large areas of the eastern DRC. More recent operations, including one in January 2009, had been bilateral, but relations remained strained. While Rwanda warned that neighbouring countries risked threats to their own security if they hosted dissident Rwandan groups, Uganda's ambassador to Kigali, Richard Kabonero, denied that such groups operated on Ugandan soil. The two countries had nonetheless held joint security meetings in spring 2011.

Though noting that the arrest of Murwanashakya, Musoni, and Mbarushimana had weakened the FDLR's international support and compromised its command structure, Human Rights Watch in a May 4 press release noted that FDLR "hardliners" had remained active in the DRC following the leaders' detention. Even during the month of Musoni and Murwanashakya's arrest, a panel of experts had reported to the UN Security Council that the FDLR remained strong and retained the support of a network of international backers. UN reports also suggested that brutality, mafia control of mining, and particularly mass rape had continued under FDLR auspices after the leaders' arrest, with over 500 women and children in North Kivu's Luvungi district reportedly raped by FDLR militias between July and September 2010 alone. Even where the FDLR was driven out, the region remained extremely turbulent, with the UN's special representative on sexual violence in conflict telling the Security Council in October 2010 that DRC government troops in the same district had also carried out mass rape in the months following the assault on the FDLR in Luvungi.

Historical context

The Rwandan genocide began in April 1994 when the death in a plane crash of President Juvénal Habyarimana unleashed a wave of violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In response to the killings, the rebels of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) resumed their campaign which had been suspended during the peace process overseen by President Habyarimana. The FPR rapidly conquered the country and drove out the Rwandan Army and Hutu militia groups who by July were fleeing into the DRC. A new government was set up and the genocide was ended. The FDLR was formed in the DRC in 2000 from the remains of the pre-genocide Rwandan Army and Hutu militia groups.

The FDLR had in March 2005 issued a denunciation of the role of Hutu troops in the Rwandan genocide, and pledged to cease offensive operations against the Rwandan state. The ceasefire had some immediate effect, with the UN reporting a "dramatic" increase in the number of Rwandan refugees returning home from the DRC in the months immediately following the announcement, and the desertion of many rebel posts by December 2005. Nonetheless, atrocities had continued, including the burning alive of 39 villagers at Ntulumamba in South Kivu in July 2005, which Murwanashakya denied has been committed on his orders. The DRC resumed military operations against the FDLR in January 2009, and by September of the same year it was reported that the conflict had led to the deaths of over 1,400 civilians, the rape of 7,000 women and girls, and the torching of over 6,000 homes in North and South Kivu. Nearly 900,000 civilians had been driven from their homes into camps.Rwanda had carried out bilateral strikes against the FDLR in DRC in February 2009, and though the mission in North Kivu was initially reported as successful local media reports suggested that the retreating fighters committed atrocities including rapes and murders, and that the FDLR retained control of large portions of South Kivu province.

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