STUTTGART, May 10 – How to spearhead a deadly militia in Congo, from Germany? In modern times, one only needs a mobile-phone and a laptop to unleash a humanitarian catastrophe. German prosecutors are convinced that two Rwandans waged a brutal war some 6,000 kilometres away via telephone calls and emails.
Judges in Stuttgart this week will continue hearing evidence against two Rwandan rebel leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Known as the "The Doctor" for his PhD in economics, Ignace Murwanashyaka headed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. With the help of his deputy Straton Musoni, he maintained the militia’s website, signed press releases and gave interviews about the group’s struggle against Rwanda.
But prosecutors in Stuttgart argue that Murwanashyaka and Musoni also directly ordered the burning of Congolese villages, the murder of 200 civilians, large numbers of rapes, recruitment of child soldiers and the use of human shields. Both men face a sentence of life in prison.
They were brought to court last Wednesday, handcuffed but looking confident with six lawyers at their side. The prosecutor read out a total of 55 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes including mass killings and rapes as part of “terror campaign” in eastern DR Congo from 2008 until their arrest in 2009.
They allegedly led a terrorist organisation from their sitting rooms. "We are talking about the full range of atrocities that one can imagine in a civil war," federal prosecutor Christian Ritscher told a panel of six judges in opening arguments. The defence, however, demanded a dismissal of the proceedings saying the trial is purely politically motivated.
The trial poses a huge challenge for judges in Stuttgart. It is too dangerous for them to visit the crime scenes so it requires some imagination to picture what happened in small jungle villages thousands of kilometres away. Besides, they will also have to familiarise themselves with the history of the region, the type of crimes and the cultural context.
Numbering between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters, the FDLR is notorious for using rape as a weapon of war. It consists of former Rwandan Hutu government soldiers and militias who carried out the 1994 genocide. Since they fled Rwanda that year, the former génocidaires tried to topple the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda, without success. Although its European leadership is behind bars, the group continue its brutalities in the dense forests of Eastern Congo, where they control gold mines and collaborate with other fighting forces to sell mineral products.
The FDLR leadership enjoyed considerable impunity in Europe. While some of them already had a suspicious past in Rwanda, they were never seriously investigated. Murwanashyaka – who has been living in Germany since 1989 and presided the FDLR since 2001- had been arrested earlier in 2006. He was released because of lack of witnesses. But after new inquiries Murwanashyaka was arrested again in November 2009, this time alongside Musoni.
Despite the many challenges, Human Rights Watch says the trial is groundbreaking. It is “a powerful statement that courts – even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred – can play a decisive role in combating impunity," says the organisation’s International Justice Advocacy Director Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner."The German authorities took an important step in carrying out their legal obligation to prosecute these horrific crimes."
She says that Germany is “joining the expanding club of states that are willing” to fight impunity for international crimes. Although a local court in Frankfurt is dealing with a case against Rwandan genocide suspect Onesphore Rwabukombe since January, the FDLR trial will be an important test-case for Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law. Adopted in 2002 it allows prosecution of foreigners for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It is “extremely far-reaching” as it does not require any link to Germany says Mattioli-Zeltner.
Over the past two decades a dozen of countries adopted the principle of universal jurisdiction. They have allowed national courts to investigate and prosecute grave international crimes committed elsewhere. Most universal jurisdiction cases concerned Rwandans, allegedly implicated in the country’s mass-killings. Genocide suspects were recently arrested in Norway, Belgium and France, while a court in the US started a trial against a Rwandan last month and a Dutch appeals court is to deliver a judgement at the end of June.
The case in Stuttgart will be closely monitored by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where Callixte Mbarushimana awaits his possible trial. After Murwanashyaka and Musoni were arrested, Mbarushimana worked as the executive secretary of the FDLR from Paris, where he was arrested last year.
Meanwhile, the trial in Stuttgart is scheduled to run until at least July while observers say it may even take up to one year.
(This story was first published by Radio Netherlands International)