Two Rwandan rebel leaders have been tried and jailed by a German court for committing war crimes in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The four-year long trial has been hailed by the UN as a breakthrough in the world of international law. It is a stark reminder that the arm of the law is very long.
Ignace Murwanashyaka, the head of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), received thirteen years in prison while his deputy, Straton Muson, was given eight years. Their sentences were passed last Monday by a German court and was widely welcomed by the Congolese authorities.
The two Rwandans have been living in Germany for over twenty years. They have long been accused of war crimes committed by militias and armed forces under their command between January 2009 up until their arrest in Germany in November 2009.
At the beginning of the case, federal prosecutor Christian Ritscher said that Murwanashyaka had ordered more than two hundred killings as well as a large number of rape cases by his militias. He was also accused of using civilians as human shields, as well as sending child soldiers to battle in the eastern part of the Congo.
This amounted to 26 counts of crimes against humanity and 39 counts of war crimes. Over time, these whittled down due to the difficulty of actually handling the case; in particular, the accounts of the rape victims and child soldiers.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Juergen Hettich, the judge supervising the court said, “This is not a political trial, but a criminal trial of significant scale.” Despite this, he further explained the difficulties the case encountered, and criticized the length of time it took, calling it “unacceptable.”
Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director, Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, said, “[It shows] that the world has become a smaller place for war criminals.” The United Nations, on the other hand, called it a breakthrough in the world of international law after four years of appealing to the Security Council to bring the two commanders to justice.
Julien Paluku, the governor or North Kivu, said that although the sentence was satisfactory for “all the population of North Kivu,” they are just the tip of the iceberg. He adds, “Other criminals still on the loose should also suffer the same fate.”
The mineral-rich areas of the Congo have been plagued by violence. Despite the two Rwandan commanders’ sentencing, armed groups like the FDLR are still sowing terror there to this very day.