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(Stuttgart) – A German court’s conviction of two Rwandan rebel leaders for crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo brings an important measure of justice to victims of mass crimes there, Human Rights Watch said today. 

On September 28, 2015, a court in Stuttgart, Germany, convicted Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni, the president and vice president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), and sentenced them to 13 and 8 years in prison, respectively. Murwanashyaka was found guilty of war crimes in relation to five FDLR attacks in eastern Congo and of leading a terrorist organization. Musoni was found guilty of leading a terrorist organization but acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

An FDLR fighter standing guard in a remote forest region of eastern Congo in February 2009.  © 2009 Reuters

“The German court’s guilty verdict against Rwandan rebel leaders for crimes in Congo shows that the world has become a smaller place for war criminals,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The court in Stuttgart may be a long way from eastern Congo, but its judges have finally delivered justice to the thousands of Congolese who have suffered serious abuses at the hands of the FDLR.”

The FDLR has long enjoyed impunity for widespread atrocities against civilians in Congo and this trial marks the first time that FDLR leaders have been held to account. German judicial officials should take steps to ensure that affected communities in Congo hear about this important verdict, for example by ensuring that victims have access to the relevant information, Human Rights Watch said.

The FDLR is a predominantly Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in eastern Congo, some of whose leaders participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Murwanashyaka and Musoni had been living in Germany for several years when they were arrested in November 2009. Both were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by FDLR fighters in eastern Congo between 2008 and 2010, and of belonging to a terrorist group.

Their trial began in May 2011. A written judgment will be issued later. Murwanashyaka and Musoni can appeal the judgment and sentence against them.

The case was the first to be tried under the German 2002 Code of Crimes Against International Law (CCAIL), which integrates the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into German law and allows German courts to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide irrespective of where they are committed. In April 2009, the German Federal Police and Prosecution Office created a “Central Unit for the Fight against War Crimes and Further Offenses Pursuant to the CCAIL,” which specializes in investigating grave international crimes.

Investigating and prosecuting complex crimes that took place thousands of kilometers away, amid continuing armed conflict, posed significant challenges for the German justice system.

For example, several charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the recruitment of child soldiers, were dropped in the course of the trial for lack of evidence. This raised questions about the thoroughness of the investigations undertaken by the German authorities. Ensuring the safety and protection of victims and witnesses required special measures. A lack of quality in interpretation from local Congolese and Rwandan languages to German led to disputes about the substance of some of the testimony in the courtroom.

Some rules under German procedural law also seemed ill-suited for this type of trial. For example, the requirement that the names of victims participating as civil parties be made public effectively prevented the participation of Congolese victims due to security concerns.

The German justice authorities should draw lessons from this trial to improve future prosecutions of grave international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Germany and other countries with the right legislation in place should continue to prosecute horrific crimes committed abroad, especially when justice is not possible in the countries where the crimes were committed, Human Rights Watch said.

The FDLR continues to commit grave crimes in Congo. Human Rights Watch research has found that FDLR fighters have killed at least 94 civilians, raped dozens of women and girls, forcibly recruited children into their ranks, kidnapped people for ransom, and destroyed countless homes since 2012. FDLR fighters frequently rob and extort money from civilians living in areas under their control. They abduct and ill-treat or torture people who are unable to pay the “taxes” they demand.

In 2012, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the military leader of the FDLR, Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, believed to be in eastern Congo, but who continues to evade justice.

The guilty verdict underscores the need to arrest the FDLR military commander, whose troops continue to commit horrific abuses in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said. Congolese authorities, together with United Nations peacekeeping forces, should urgently implement the ICC arrest warrant and ensure that Mudacumura also faces justice.

“Despite the trial’s complexity, the German authorities did the right thing in trying this case to be sure that Germany does not become a safe haven for war criminals,” Mattioli-Zeltner said. “The government should work to improve future prosecutions under this law and maintain strong political and financial support for the work of the special war crimes unit.” 

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