Rwanda: What Next for Burundian Militants Captured in Rwanda?

10 October 2020

A group of 19 armed militants who were captured on Rwandan territory by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) were paraded this week in Ruheru sector in Nyaruguru District.

The militants who claimed to be members of RED Tabara, an armed group which has been fighting the Burundian government, were apprehended last month in the Southern Province.

They had crossed 600 metres into the Rwandan territory, according to Major Alex Nkuranga who gave a first detailed account of the incident, which happened on September 29.

A five-member team of military experts from the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) were in Nyaruguru to investigate circumstances within which the fighters entered Rwanda.

Members from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya and Rwanda, said they would submit a report to the EJVM commander who will also present it to the military chiefs during a videoconference.

"We have come here to verify what happens on the ground. We shall make a report by Wednesday, which will be submitted to the military chiefs of the Great Lakes region," Col. Rigobert Ibouanga of who was leading the team noted.

Col. Ibouanga of Congo-Brazzaville indicated that a meeting of chiefs of defence staff will take place on October 13, during which the report that will have been submitted will be discussed.

What's next?

Under the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) pact to promote peace, security and development, countries are required to "cooperate at all levels with a view to disarming and dismantling existing armed rebel groups."

Countries in the Great Lakes Region are also required to promote joint and participatory management of state and human security on their common borders.

It's not, however, clear how in such a situation countries are supposed to act upon members of rebel groups that have illegally crossed into the other country's territory.

Some experts suggest that the members of the Burundian rebel group are now treated as prisoners of war, which could mean that the international humanitarian law may apply.

But Alphonse Muleefu, a senior law professor at the University of Rwanda, says that international humanitarian law does not provide for prisoners of war in Non-International Armed Conflicts.

"Generally international humanitarian law regulates parties in conflicts, and Rwanda is not a party to the conflict with the arrested group," he notes.

The professor indicates that it becomes even more complicated because the group is fighting Burundi not Rwanda, but he insists that Rwanda can charge them with several crimes including illegal entry into the country, and illegal possession of weapons on the Rwandan territory.

"In that circumstance, if charged in domestic courts of law, their rights of legal assistance and others provided for a fair trial would be observed," he argues.

Muleefu who's also the Acting Principal of the College of Arts and Social Sciences, suggests that the most appropriate solution would come from the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM).

Nevertheless, the Great Lakes regional defence mechanism itself has no power and cannot make any decision under their mandate rather they can only advise a way forward.

Other available options?

Burundi maintained its request to Rwanda, asking the country to handover the militants to the country.

In a statement tweeted by Willy Nyamitwe, the Senior Advisor to Burundi's President, his government claimed the group had attacked a village in Burundi, before withdrawing after killing one.

The statement was communicated by Burundi's Ministry of the Interior, Community Development and Public Security, which called on "Rwanda to hand over to Burundi these criminals it has apprehended, directly without going through other mechanisms."

The commander of the captured group Egide Nkurunziza, however, told the press from the Southern Province recently that they were not willing to go to Burundi.

Teddy Mazina, a political analyst and a Burundian journalist told The New Times that the most appropriate decision would be letting the international community handle the combatants.

"Previous experience shows that the Government of Burundi tends to subject these combatants to inhumane actions, including killing them without allowing them to get fair trial," he notes.

Mazina says the incident is now a diplomatic and a humanitarian issue.

"It should, therefore, be handled through international channels, so that they (seized combatants) can serve justice if that's what the Burundian government wants," he said.

While there is a scheduled meeting of military chiefs, sources say there is little hope that the incident will appear broadly rather the conversation will generally focus on regional security matters.

The remaining option would be extradition.

However, countries under international law are discouraged from extraditing people to their countries if there is fear of facing degrading and inhumane treatment, being persecuted or not getting fair trial.


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