Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Calls for FDLR Crackdown After Leader's Arrest

High-profile arrest marks new stage in ICC’s Kivu investigation, but observers say it needs to be followed by further action to prevent more atrocities.
By Mélanie Gouby
  • Aerial view of internal displacement camps in North Kivu, a region where the FDLR has been active. (Photo: UN Photo/Marie Frechon)
    Aerial view of internal displacement camps in North Kivu, a region where the FDLR has been active. (Photo: UN Photo/Marie Frechon)

Despite the recent arrest in Paris of the leader of a Hutu militia operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, experts have warned that his rebel group will continue to wreak havoc without a concerted effort to pursue their leaders on the ground and their financial backers.

Callixte Mbarushimana, the executive secretary of Hutu militia the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, was arrested on October 11 after the International Criminal Court, ICC, issued a sealed warrant against him in late September.

The prosecution office of the ICC has indicated that more warrants are likely to follow, in connection with crimes committed in the North and South Kivu provinces of DRC.

“The arrest of Mbarushimana sends a clear message to perpetrators of atrocities against the population that impunity is not guaranteed,” Guy Mushata, a Congolese lawyer at the International Centre for Transitional Justice, told Radio Okapi. “It is a message of relief to the population, who consider there is a certain complacency or even complicity from the international community.”

Raphael Nyabirungu, a legislator representing the territory of Rutshuru, North Kivu, added that the arrest was a strong indication that the ICC is now giving serious attention to the crimes committed in the Kivus.

Mbarushimana’s arrest follows those in November 2009 of then FDLR leader Ignace Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni.

Both men were detained in Germany and are now awaiting trial there for atrocities committed in the eastern DRC.

Mbarushimana, a Rwandan national, has been arrested at the request of the ICC and it is now up to the French courts to decide whether he can be extradited to The Hague to stand trial. A formal hearing is scheduled for October 20.

But while the arrest of Mbarushimana has an undeniably symbolic value, experts warn that to have a real impact on the armed group’s activities in the region, the ICC will need to go after commanders heading military operations on the ground as well as those who finance them.

The FDLR is thought to rely largely on mineral exploitation in the Kivus for its funding. In 2009, a panel of United Nations experts estimated that the group was making profits “possibly worth millions of dollars a year from the trade of minerals”. It also warned that the FDLR “has a far-reaching international diaspora network involved in the day-to-day running of the movement, the coordination of military and arms-trafficking activities and the management of financial activities”, calling on member states to take action against those violating sanctions and helping to fund the FDLR.

Atrocities still continue to take place in eastern DRC. A particularly brutal attack occurred in early August, when more than 200 women and children were raped in Walikale, Masisi territory.

Victims have identified members of the FDLR as being responsible for the mass rapes and the ICC has indicated it is investigating the abuses, although the warrant issued against Mbarushimana does not include those particular crimes.

Laura Seay, a DRC expert and assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, says that while the arrest might demoralise other members of the FDLR, it is unlikely to significantly disrupt the group’s structure.

“One of the reasons the [FDLR] movement has lasted so long is that it is not dependent on one individual for its continuance,” she said. “It is built around an ideology and a set of political goals rather than one person’s charisma or vision.”

Indeed, Mbarushimana was appointed secretary-general of the movement following the arrest of Murwanashyaka and Musoni last year.

At the time, Anneke van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IWPR that this underscored the importance of arresting Mbarushimana, and warned of the movement’s resilience.

Now, while van Woudenberg welcomes the latest arrest, she thinks that more should be done to shut down the movement’s core operations.

“We saw that the arrest of Ignace Murwanashyaka had a very small impact on the ground and the movement adjusted quickly,” she said. “We cannot stop at the political leadership. I hope that the ICC will issue arrest warrants for the military leaders on the ground.”

Pascal Turlan, a senior advisor in the ICC’s prosecution office, says that investigators have been looking closely at other FDLR leaders during their research into atrocities.

Mbarushimana is the first person to be arrested in relation with the ICC investigation in the Kivus and the first non-Congolese accused of crimes committed in DRC.

He has already appeared before an international court regarding his alleged involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when he was working for the UN. He was subsequently acquitted and given compensation for being unfairly dismissed, much to the consternation of some human rights activists.

Mbarushimana’s arrest warrant links the FDLR to several attacks against villages in the Kivus in 2009, accusing the militia of setting houses on fires, murdering hundreds of civilians, raping and mutilating women, sometimes cutting open their wombs to remove foetuses.

The FDLR leader is accused of contributing to planning those operations in order to create a humanitarian crisis and put pressure on the Rwandan and Congolese government for the purpose of obtaining political power for the militia group.

Mbarushimana faces 11 counts of torture, rape and murder.

“According to our information, Mbarushimana has personally conducted this campaign in agreement with other FDLR cadres and, as the preliminary chambers concluded when it decided to issue the arrest warrant, there are reasonable grounds to believe he contributed in person to the elaboration of the plan. Therefore, he is criminally responsible individually,” ICC advisor Turlan said.

Reached in Paris, Mbarushimana’s lawyer, Nick Kaufman, indicated that his client rejects all charges brought against him and “strongly denies any involvement in the crimes” which he is alleged to have committed. Mbarushimana has made an application for immediate release and will plead against extradition to The Hague.

Melanie Gouby is an IWPR reporter.