Confirmation of charges hearings in the case of Rwandan rebel leader ended on Wednesday before the International Criminal Court. Judges will decide before Christmas if Callixte Mbarushimana should stand trial for leading a villainous Hutu militia, the FDLR.
By Thijs Bouwknegt, The Hague
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and his team believe that in 2009 Mbarushimana “directed or helped to direct” a terror campaign of murder, rape and torture of Congolese civilians from his home in Paris. The attacks perpetrated by FDLR militiamen resulted in at least 384 deaths, 135 cases of sexual violence, 521 abductions and 38 cases of torture.
Mbarushimana - also known as ‘Maneza’ - denies involvement in any crime. His lawyer tried to refute five counts of crimes against humanity and six war crimes. Nick Kaufman maintains there is no evidence to support the charges, saying the prosecutor’s case mainly relies on reports from human rights organisations “whose sources are unverified and unreliable”.
During the hearings to confirm charges against Mbarushimana, prosecutors produced copies of emails exchanged between the suspect and other FDLR leaders, including their president Ignace Murwanyashaka who is currently tried in Stuttgart, Germany.
"Mr Mbarushimana represented the respectable public face of the FDLR," the court's deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening statements on Friday. He is accused of plotting a "human catastrophe" of murder, rape and plunder by the Hutu FDLR in the Kivus in a campaign to make the international community put pressure on Kigali to deal with the exiled movement, Bensouda told a three-judge bench.
"He was the linchpin, the man who could transform crimes committed in the Kivus into political leverage in Rwanda," she said at the hearing which will determine whether Mbarushimana's case goes to trial or not. "He spoke the language of peace," Bensouda said. "But behind the message of peace, however, the implicit threat was that unless enemies stop trying to oust them (FDLR), the killings of civilians would continue."
"No win situation"
Kaufman, Mbarushimana's lawyer, said "the evidence for the commission of these crimes simply does not exist." Kaufman said the prosecution was trying to "criminalize free speech". He denounced a “no win situation. If he denies the crimes, he is guilty. If he admits the crimes, is double guilty”. The Israeli lawyer added : “Maybe Miss Bensouda [deputy Prosecutor] think I am also guilty (...) in denying the prosecutor evidences”.
He also stated that his client was in the box because the ICC needed to send a suspect to The Hague: “It could not have Bosco Ntaganda because the Congo would not give him over. It could not have Nkunda, because the Rwanda would not give him over”. Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese rebel who later integrated Congolese regular army forces, was indicted by the ICC in 2006. Laurent Nkunda, also a former militia leader backed by Rwanda, is now living in exile in Uganda.
Mbarushimana - a computer engineer who had been living in France as a political refugee since 2002 - is the alleged executive secretary of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Numbering between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters, the FDLR is notorious for using rape as a weapon of war. It consists of former Rwandan Hutu government soldiers and militias who carried out the 1994 genocide. Since they fled Rwanda that year, the former génocidaires tried to topple the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda, without success.
Although its European leadership is behind bars, the group continues its brutalities in the dense forests of Eastern Congo, where they control gold mines and collaborate with other fighting forces to sell mineral products.
Until recently, the FDLR leadership enjoyed considerable impunity in Europe. This was particularly obvious in Mbarushimana’s case. He had been on an Interpol list for a long time, wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, yet he lived freely in Paris for years before his arrest.
Mbarushimana’s apprehension followed the arrest of FDLR president Ignace Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni in late 2009 in Germany. Since May, the duo have been on trial in Stuttgart on 55 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes for leading a “terrorist organisation” from their sitting rooms in Germany. They maintained the FDLR’s website, signed press releases and gave interviews about the group’s struggle against Rwanda. After their arrest, Mbarushimana took on their work from his home in Paris.
While Murwanashyaka sometimes visited their camps in Eastern Congo, Mbarushimana never set foot on Congolese soil. But ICC prosecutors say they have evidence on how he directed FDLR operations from Europe, particularly using international and local media.
The ICC was set-up to bring an end to impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Yet, ICC prosecutors can not investigate accusations that Mbarushimana played a role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide that killed over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The court can only prosecute crimes committed after July 2002 – when it opened its doors in The Hague.
Rwanda and victims groups in France have accused Mbarushimana of genocide. The computer engineer had been working for the UN Development Programme in Kigali for two years before the genocide unfolded. But according to witnesses, he misused his position to give UN information to Interahamwe militias in 1994 and that 32 people, including a UN employee, were killed at his orders.
After the genocide, Mbarushimana worked for the UN Development Program in Angola and the UN Mission in Kosovo. He continued to hold his UN job until 2001, when colleagues in Angola and Kosovo recognised him from their time in Rwanda. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) investigated him but the indictment was dismissed a year after it was drafted. He was not a big enough ‘fish’ for the tribunal to try.
Three years later Mbarushimana went to the UN’s Administrative Tribunal and won 13 months back pay for wrongful dismissal. He was arrested again in 2009 while in transit in Germany, but released once more. It fed his confidence that he would never be convicted because of lack of evidence. His ‘luck’ came to an end when he was arrested last December in Paris.
He appeared restless as he took his seat in the dock at his first appearance before the ICC in January. He told Judge Cuno Tarfuser he was not involved in any crimes. On the contrary, he said he had spent all his life fighting “injustice, hatred of other people and all forms of exploitation of human beings,” and that he “will continue to fight that in all its forms.” He condemnded “the attacks against innocent civilians.”
It is now for the ICC judges to decide whether Mabarushima will finally face trial in The Hague. They have sixty days to make their decision.