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Today a German court convicted two Rwandan rebel leaders for crimes committed in the DRC. The two rebel leaders, Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni, were the president and vice president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda, FDLR).
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. The two men were sentenced to 13 and 8 years in prison, respectively. After the verdict, Musoni was released immediately due to the time that he has already spent in prison.
The trial against Murwanashyaka and Musoni which began four years ago is the first that has been taken under the German 2002 Code of Crimes Against International Law (CCAIL). The CCAIL incorporates the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into German law. It gives German courts the universal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, irrespective of where they are committed (for more on this legislation, see here).
Today’s verdict constitutes the first successful prosecution of members of the FDLR. In 2011, the International Criminal Court declined to confirm the charges against Callixte Mbarushimana, the Exective Secretary of the FDLR.
The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in territory in eastern Congo bordering with Rwanda. It was formed in 1994 after ethnic Hutus, some of whom were perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, fled to neighbouring DRC. The group’s stated aim is to overthrow the Tutsi dominated government in Kigali.
The FDLR’s top leadership was known to have been situated in Germany and France but maintained their control and influence in DR Congo. In 2009, a UN report alleged that the group relied upon a vast international network of supporters in at least 25 countries. It found that Murwanashyaka was helping negotiate armed shipments to the group as well as organizing money transfers to commanders on the ground. According to the report he was also handling money which had been raised by the group through the illicit sale of natural resources.
According to the report, phones logs showed that Murwanashyaka had made more than 240 calls to satellite phones used by FDLR field commanders, including numerous calls to the telephone of General Sylvestre Muducumura, the rebel movement’s army chief in eastern Congo. According to the report, deserters had reported that Muducumura did not carry out any major military operation without first consulting Murwanashyaka.
In line with these findings, both Murwanashyaka an Musoni have been convicted of having committed crimes in the DRC from Germany where both have lived for the last twenty years. The Prosecution brought evidence that Murwanashyaka communicated with the first general of the FDLR in the ground in the DRC by satellite phone and mobile phone. His deputy, Straton Musoni, was alleged to have issued orders to the FDLR militia from Germany via satellite telephone, SMS and emails.
When the trial started in 2011, the pair were accused of committing 26 counts of crimes against humanity and 39 of war crimes. During the course of the trial, many of the charges were dropped including some of those relating to the use of child soldiers and rape. It has been suggested that these charges may be the result of a questionable level of investigation on the part of the prosecution.
Indeed, criticisms of the trial have been numerous. In particular, the defence lawyers have repeatedly criticised the trial as being politically motivated and instigated by the Kigali government. There have been also numerous criticisms of the quality of the translating during the trial with Murwanashyaka reportedly quarreling frequently with the court interpreters about the exact translation of the texts. The judge apparently said that the problems encountered during the trial and the time it took had been “unacceptable”.
The case highlights the logistical difficulties of conducting criminal prosecutions many thousands of miles from where the crimes were committed. Indeed, during the trial, it was highlighted that German authorities faced considerable difficulties in securing the safety of those who testified from the DRC, after their testimony. The case also highlights the dilemma of how to make prosecutions in third countries meaningful for those on the ground in the countries where the crimes were committed.
That being said the conviction of the two men can also be seen as sending an important message to war criminals seeking a safe haven in third countries. It also constitutes a warning to persons in diaspora communities that their support for, and involvement with, rebel groups abroad may constitute criminal acts. Perhaps most importantly of all, it sends an important message to the leadership of the FDLR which continues to remain active in the areas of the DRC surrounding Lake Kivu that their crimes have not been forgotten.