A Test for Universal Jurisdiction War Crimes in Africa on Trial in Germany

The trial of two Rwandan rebel leaders accused of ordering war crimes in eastern Congo opened in Stuttgart on Wednesday. Human rights activists are watching the proceedings closely. They are seen as a vital test of the principal of universal jurisdiction, which allow war criminals to be tried anywhere in the world.

Congolese soldiers in a military base in early 2009 preparing for an offensive against the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda.

Congolese soldiers in a military base in early 2009 preparing for an offensive against the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda.

The first hearing of an unprecedented trial in Stuttgart recessed briefly on Wednesday when the defense team for Ignace Murwanashyaka, 47, and Straton Musoni, 49, questioned the fairness of the proceedings. And they are indeed unusual -- a trial focusing on war crimes committed in Africa is hardly an everyday occurance in Germany.

The court, though, allowed it to proceed -- thus kicking off a significant test of the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Murwanashyaka and Musoni stand accused of ordering atrocities carried out by a Hutu militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), in 2008 and 2009. Both men were in Europe at the time. "They stand accused of controlling the strategy and tactics of the FDLR from Germany," a statement by a higher regional court in Stuttgart said. "In this capacity they're supposed to have been responsible for 26 crimes against humanity and 39 war crimes" committed by their militias in the Decmoratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Another rebel leader, Callixte Mbarushimana, faces similar charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. He was transferred from French exile to The Hague earlier this year.

Universal Jurisdiction

Both trials rest on the Statute of the International Criminal Court, some aspects of which the German government has written into its national code. Human Rights Watch said the Stuttgart trial will test the principle of universal jurisdiction, which claims that some crimes -- like genocide, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances -- can be tried anywhere in the world "because of their sheer gravity."

Stuttgart prosecutors argue that Murwanashyaka and Musoni directly ordered the burning of Congolese villages, the murder of 200 civilians, "large numbers" of rapes, the recruitment of child soldiers and the use of human shields -- all from Germany, using laptops and mobile phones.

The FDLR is a militia consisting largely of Hutus who fled Rwanda after the genocide of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994. (All three accused leaders are Hutus.) The group has consolidated across the Congolese border, where it controls some gold mines and roads. Its aim is to topple the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda.

When the atrocities took place, UN-backed Congolese and Rwandan forces had moved against FDLR camps in the Congolese forest.

The Rumsfeld Principle

The "universal jurisdiction" principle was also invoked in a lawsuit brought by a German attorney in 2006 against Donald Rumsfeld, the former US secretary of defense. The suit alleges that he was responsible for violations of the UN Convention Against Torture in prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon has belittled the case as a "frivolous lawsuit," and Rumsfeld has never exposed himself to it by visiting Germany.

The Rwandan case is slightly different -- it's a criminal complaint -- but like the Rumsfeld suit it rests on the Code of Crimes Against International Law, a section of German code adopted from ICC law in 2002.

Wolfgang Kaleck is a Berlin lawyer who brought the suit against Rumsfeld and other members of the administration of President George W. Bush. He also runs the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and he commented on the Stuttgart case to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Of course it's preferable to hold a trial like this in the DRC," he said, "but it's questionable whether the wartime government in Congo can hold a fair trial. So in cases like this it's a positive development that we can try them in Germany, or anywhere in Europe."

He added that the Stuttgart case was made stronger by the fact that the defendants allegedly gave orders from Germany. "In that sense Germany is also a scene of the crime," he said.

msm -- with wire reports

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