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Groundbreaking trial

May 4, 2011

The trial against two men accused of masterminding atrocities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has opened in Stuttgart. Never before has FDLR militia been made accountable for its crimes before a court.

un soldiers patrol luvungi
UN soldiers now patrol the villages in eastern DRCImage: Simone Schlindwein

Ignace Murwanashyaka, the head of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and his deputy Straton Musoni are in the dock in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart. The two men are charged with ordering mass killings and rapes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from Germany, where they have lived for years.

They face 26 counts of crimes against humanity and 39 counts of war crimes committed by militias under their command between January 2008 and their arrest in November 2009. The crimes involve some 200 killings and "large numbers" of rapes by Murwanashyaka militias, having them use civilians as "human shields" and sending child soldiers into battle in eastern DRC.

The case is the first to be tried under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law, which integrates crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court into German criminal law. It includes war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

"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 Geraldine 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."

Rape as a weapon

women in luvungi
Women in Luvungi are hoping for justiceImage: Simone Schlindwein

Mass rapes have been widespread for years in Congo. In the small eastern village of Luvungi, for example, FDLR rebels are the rulers. They dig for gold in the mines, control the few access roads into the jungle - and torment the population. One of the young women in the village recalls an attack in Luvungi last year, on June 30.

"The rebels came in the late evening, around 11 o'clock," Marie said. "They went from door to door in small groups and kicked the door in. They grabbed my husband and held him. Then they pulled me down to the ground by my hair." Marie was repeatedly raped, as was her three-year-old daughter.

Marie's experience is one of many. What is particularly disturbing is that it did not occur arbitrarily and ad hoc, but rather under the orders of FDLR commanders. It was systematically planned and carried out. It is a tactic, a weapon of warfare.

Systematic terror under order

The investigation by local police chief Josephat Mutayongwa showed that the attack on Luvungi and the surrounding villages was an internal conflict. The FDLR had previously formed an alliance with a local Congolese rebel group, the Mai-Mai under Commander Checka. But the two sides had a falling out after failing to agree on the control of the goldmines. Mutayongwa discovered why the FDLR selected Luvungi of all places to attack.

"Checka and his followers are from these villages, their parents, wives and children live here," Mutayongwa said. "It was revenge against Checka to systematically rape the women."

ignace murwanashyaka
Murwanashyaka has lived in Germany for more than 20 yearsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The mass rapes last summer occurred after the rebel leaders were arrested in Germany. They cannot be charged with these crimes. But what happened in Luvungi happens in Congo's jungles every day - for the last 16 years. It is systematic terror ordered from rebel leaders.

Prosecutors will have to prove to the court in Stuttgart that FDLR president Murwanashyaka and his deputy Musoni - who were granted asylum in Germany as refugees from Rwanda - commanded the militia. Rebel fighters disarmed by the United Nations can confirm this. When asked who controlled the FDLR, who gave orders and decided on war and peace, staff of the UN mission in DRC hears one name: Ignace Murwanashyaka in Germany.

A high-ranking FDLR major, whose identity has not been disclosed, confirmed that Murwanashyaka has the command. The FDLR structure contains a political and a military wing, he said.

"Murwanashyaka in Germany is head of the political division, but he also controls the military," he said. "He is the high commander."

The next most senior general is Sylvestre Mudacumura, Murwanashyaka's loyal subordinate and a good friend, the major said.

A brutal strategy

It was 2009 when the UN intercepted a radio message in which Mudacumura ordered a humanitarian catastrophe. This led to a series of brutal massacres in the jungle villages. The logs show that the general communicated before and after the massacres with Murwanashyaka in Germany. This was also the case on May 9, 2009. On this night, the houses in the village of Busurungi went up in flames, killing close to 100 people. Lieutenant Ismael was there.

the jungle in eastern DRC
Rebel militia hide in the thick jungleImage: Simone Schlindwein

"We were ordered to burn the houses," he said. The order was first, force the population to leave their homes and second, not allow the soldiers any hideouts. Third, militia were to make as many people as possible refugees - so that they can no longer support the soldiers in the future.

"That is our general strategy," Lieutenant Ismael said. "This order came from above and was passed on to me. I was just the one who carried it out."

This was an order valid for all attacks and is still in force today. Ismael said he is certain that Murwanashyaka in Germany gave this order.

A groundbreaking trial

The trial in Germany is a milestone. Not only Marie from Luvungi, many people in Congo hope that the FDLR are made accountable for their crimes.

The UN has hailed the trial as a breakthrough after repeated calls by the Security Council to bring FDLR commanders living abroad to justice and to bar them from unleashing further violence in eastern DRC.

"This cooperative burden-sharing in prosecuting individuals for serious international crimes will greatly advance the fight against impunity," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in January. "Legal action against FDLR leaders also reinforces efforts to demobilize and repatriate FDLR fighters, which would significantly contribute to stabilizing the eastern DRC."

The trial is expected to run until at least July.

Author: Simone Schlindwein / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge