Rwanda: Genocide Trial - Can German Courts Prosecute?

1 November 2018

Two Rwandans were sentenced by a court in Stuttgart for war crimes committed in eastern DR Congo. But can international criminal law be applied in Germany? There may have to be a retrial.

It was a mammoth war crimes trial. The Higher Regional Court in Stuttgart was in session for 320 days over a period of more than four years. Two Rwandan men were accused of leading a rebel group in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for several years, while they themselves were in Germany, undetected and living perfectly normal lives.

When the trial ended in 2015, the two defendants were convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes and sentenced to eight and 13 years respectively. However, these sentences may now be revoked. This week, Germany's supreme court, the Federal Court of Justice, deliberated the possible need for a retrial.

In the original proceedings, Federal Prosecutor's Office called for the long-standing president of the FDLR ("Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda") to be tried as a perpetrator, not just for aiding and abetting. Both the now 55-year-old principal defendant and his 57-year-old deputy have lived in Germany since the 1980s. They led the FDLR from afar, as its officials and representatives.

In 2015, the Stuttgart court convicted the men of heading a terrorist organization, but it decided that they had not had the power prevent the atrocities.

Federal prosecutors appealed because they want the accused to be indicted of committing war crimes themselves. The defense appealed because they say their clients did not receive a fair trial and demand it be stopped or go to retrial.

On December 20, the judges in Karlsruhe will decide what will happen next.

No more lawless areas

But why is the German justice system dealing with atrocities committed in eastern DRC? Since 2002, according to the principle of international law, German investigators have been able to prosecute war crimes committed abroad. The Chief Federal Prosecutor ordered the arrests of the pair in 2009. The indictment was the first to be made according to Germany's new international criminal code, which regulates crimes against international criminal law. The two men are charged with coordinating 26 crimes against humanity and 39 war crimes. As they live in Germany, they must be dealt with by a German court.

Robert Heinsch, Professor for International Humanitarian Law at the Ruhr University in Bochum, believes it is essential that German courts make use of the new principle of universal jurisdiction. "The four core crimes in particular -- genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression - are so important for global coexistence that they cannot be entrusted to an individual state, because these crimes essentially concern everybody," he told DW.

This is clearly apparent in this case. In 2008 and 2009, FDLR fighters attacked a series of villages in eastern DRC. People were burned or beaten to death, shot or hacked to pieces. The 174 civilian victims included many women and children. The background to the killings was the civil war and genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. At that time, many Rwandan Hutus fled to the DRC. Some of them founded the FDLR with the aim of using their base across the Congolese border to seize power from the Rwandan government.

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