(Brussels) - The trial of two Rwandan rebel leaders arrested in Germany for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of Congo makes the world a smaller place for suspected war criminals, Human Rights Watch said today.
On May 4, 2011, judges in Stuttgart, Germany, will begin hearing evidence against Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni, respectively president and vice president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, FDLR). The FDLR is a predominately Rwandan Hutu armed group that has been operating in eastern Congo, under various names, since 1994.
"The trial of Murwanashyaka and Musoni is a powerful statement that courts - even thousands of miles away from where the atrocities occurred - can play a decisive role in combating impunity," said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The German authorities took an important step in carrying out their legal obligation to prosecute these horrific crimes."
Both men were arrested on November 17, 2009, in Germany, where they had been living for several years. They are charged with 26 counts of crimes against humanity and 39 counts of war crimes allegedly committed by FDLR troops on Congolese territory between January 2008 and November 2009. These charges were brought under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law (CCAIL).They are also charged with belonging to a terrorist group.
For several years, FDLR troops have conducted widespread and brutal attacks against civilians in eastern Congo. These intensified in 2009 following Congolese army military operations against the FDLR with the backing of the Rwandan army and later United Nations peacekeepers. Human Rights Watch documented numerous deliberate killings of civilians by the FDLR. The victims included women, children, and the elderly, many of whom were hacked to death with machetes and hoes. FDLR combatants pillaged and burned homes, sometimes with their victims locked inside. FDLR attacks were regularly accompanied by rape. Most victims were gang raped, with combatants deliberately using sexual violence as a weapon of war, Human Rights Watch found.
Murwanashyaka and Musoni were not in the DRC when these crimes were committed. However, they were known to be closely communicating with and ordering operations by FDLR troops in eastern DRC. As senior leaders of the movement, they both may carry responsibility for the crimes the troops committed if it can be shown that they ordered the crimes or if they knew of the crimes and did nothing to stop them, for example. They are also suspected of instigating and ordering a strategy in which FDLR troops on the ground would deliberately create a "humanitarian catastrophe" by attacking civilians, in an apparent effort to force the international community to call for an end to the military operations against them.
The FDLR has received significant support from diaspora cells and satellites in European, North American, and African countries, which have facilitated money transfers, coordinated arms deliveries or facilitated recruitment for the group. The conflict is still ongoing in North and South Kivu provinces in eastern Congo, and the FDLR, as well as other armed groups, continue to carry out grave human rights abuses against civilians. In one of the worst recent incidents, at least 53 women and girls were raped by FDLR combatants in southern Fizi, South Kivu Province, between January 19 and 21, according to humanitarian and UN sources.
"Murwanashyaka and Musoni could be found criminally responsible for the atrocities committed by their troops in Congo," Mattioli-Zeltner said. "This trial should send a strong signal to FDLR commanders still ordering crimes in eastern Congo, including the military commander, General Sylvestre Mudacumura, as well as others who may believe they can support or order mass human rights violations from the comfort of their homes in Europe or North America."
This case is the first to be tried under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law (CCAIL), passed in June 2002, which integrates the crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) - war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide - into German criminal law. The CCAIL provides the basis for pursuing suspected war criminals under the principle of universal jurisdiction - which allows a state to prosecute foreigners even absent a connection to the state in question. Murwanashyaka and Musoni could also be tried because they are accused of committing the crimes from the territory of Germany, where they are residents.
In October 2010, French police arrested in Paris Callixte Mbarushimana, who had moved into the leadership role of the FDLR following the arrest of Murwanashyaka and Musoni, under a warrant from the ICC. Mbarushimana was wanted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was transferred to The Hague in January. The ICC's hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to send his case to trial is scheduled to start on July 4.
In April 2009, the German Federal Police office created a Central Unit for the Fight against War Crimes and other offenses under the CCAIL. This unit helps police and prosecutors to investigate grave international crimes.
With the conflict ongoing in eastern Congo, ensuring the security and safety of witnesses, victims, and judicial staff is a major challenge. The court in Stuttgart bears the responsibility of safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of Congolese victims who are brave enough to testify, Human Rights Watch said. The court should also make information about the trial accessible to communities affected by the FDLR's many crimes.
"The trial of Murwanashyaka and Musoni presents an opportunity for victims of FDLR crimes to finally see justice after so many years of suffering," Mattioli-Zeltner said. "The court in Stuttgart should find innovative ways to communicate vital information about the trial to affected communities in Congo."