Nkunda Family Try to Win Over Rights Activists

They say he is being detained illegally in Rwanda, and fear he will not face a fair trial if extradited to Congo.

Nkunda Family Try to Win Over Rights Activists

They say he is being detained illegally in Rwanda, and fear he will not face a fair trial if extradited to Congo.

The family of Laurent Nkunda has called on the international human rights community to back their campaign for the release of the rebel general who is currently detained in Rwanda.

Nkunda, who himself is accused of grave human rights abuses in his native Democratic Republic of Congo, remains in legal limbo after a Rwandan court this week rejected his application for release.

He was arrested in late January in Rwanda and has since been held there incommunicado. His family say they been denied access to Nkunda, as has his lawyer, and that he is illegally detained.

“Since Nkunda was arrested, not even one human right organisation raised a voice on this arrest and the fact that the family cannot visit him,” said Elisée Maheshe Nkunda, the deposed general’s wife, in an interview with IWPR.

Nkunda was arrested on January 22, his lawyers say, while attending a meeting in Rwanda. He had just been ousted as the leader of the CNDP rebel movement by International Criminal Court, ICC, indictee Bosco Ntaganda.

He is now thought to be somewhere in Gisenyi, just across the border from the North Kivu capital Goma, though has not been charged. Negotiations are under way over his extradition to Congo.

“Nobody came to explain me the situation or to reassure me about the detention of my husband,” said Maheshe Nkunda. “What I know about him is that he is detained here in Gisenyi under the guard of Rwandan soldiers and that the president of the Congo is claiming his extradition without saying why or on which basis.”

Nkunda’s lawyer Stephane Bourgon on April 20 petitioned a Rwandan court for his release, but that application was rejected on a technicality.

“I am very disappointed with the government of Rwanda,” he said. “It is known that Laurent Nkunda is detained here in Gisenyi. The government prefers to use technical details and not respond to the main question which is to know whether he is detained legally or illegally.”

He plans to try to rally the human rights community to Nkunda’s cause.

“In the next days, we are going to meet the representatives of NGOs which have a mandate to promote and protect human rights, so that they take a position in this [case],” he said.

“Those organisations have a mandate which is clear – to promote and protect human rights where they are violated.”

That could be an uphill battle as Nkunda is a controversial figure. In the past, he has more often been accused of being a human rights abuser rather than the victim.

Troops under his command were accused of committing war crimes during an attack on the South Kivu city of Bukavu in 2004. More recently, his CNDP soldiers were in the middle of bloody fighting with the army in North Kivu. Groups including Human Rights Watch accuse the CNDP of a massacre in the town of Kiwanja – accusations that Nkunda denies.

HRW’s Congo specialist Anneke van Woudenberg says her organisation is always concerned when someone’s rights are abused. However, she believes Nkunda is well represented by his legal team.

“His lawyers and family are making a significant amount of noise about his illegal detention. I have to say, not nearly as much noise was made by lawyers in similar cases where Laurent Nkunda or his troops held people in illegal conditions,” said Van Woudenberg. “However I would never say that it therefore makes it right. It does not.

“We can’t make noise about every case and his lawyers are doing a pretty good job. He is well represented, more than any of his victim has ever been, I can tell you that much.”

International and Congolese analysts believe Nkunda will remain in legal limbo until the huge complexities surrounding his case are resolved.

“There are complications with every possible option,” said Christian Hemedi, coordinator of the Congolese Coalition for the ICC.

Where Nkunda should be tried is perhaps the thorniest issue. Congo has demanded that he be returned to Kinshasa, which his lawyer strongly resists as he says Nkunda could not receive a fair hearing there..

The Congolese judicial system is corrupt and inefficient and the country still retains the death penalty. Rwanda’s constitution forbids extradition to countries that impose capital punishment “unless the requesting state gives formal guarantees that the death sentence will not be implemented”.

That seems unlikely in Congo where Nkunda has many enemies amongst the political elite but also the ordinary Congolese who have suffered years of war in the east. “Too many people want to see him condemned, potentially to death,” said Victor Sulubika from Vision-Gram International a Congolese-Canadian NGO.

There has also been speculation that Nkunda, a Tutsi, may claim Rwandan nationality as the constitution also forbids the extradition of its own citizens. Though he was born in Congo, Nkunda fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front in the 1990s and has strong connections with the country.

Rwanda could try Nkunda in its own courts as it has universal jurisdiction, the capacity to prosecute anyone, even foreigners, who have allegedly committed grave crimes. Van Woudenberg, however, doubts Rwanda would pursue that course of action.

“Nkunda has received significant support from Rwanda over the years, and he is popular amongst a certain sector of Rwandan society,” she said.

Nor does the ICC seem likely to step in anytime soon. Though the Hague-based court has said several times it is considering the situation in North Kivu, that has yet to translate into investigators on the ground. Actual ICC arrests and a court case could be many months, or even years, away.

Amnesty International’s Andrew Phillip says this doesn’t bode well for Nkunda’s hopes for speedy release. “There has been no indication of interest by the ICC, which means that Nkunda will carry on being held illegally in Rwanda, without any clear outcome,” he said.

Phillip, however, is concerned that if the legal limbo carries on for too long, Nkunda might never face a judge to answer for his alleged crimes.

“My fear is that sooner or later he will be forgotten about and no action will be taken against him, which is why we continue to press for him being taken to justice under a fair trial,” he said. “The Rwandans should make clear what they are going to do with him.”

Jacques Kahorha and Melanie Gouby are IWPR contributors in Goma and London respectively. Additional reporting by IWPR contributor Eugène Bakama Bope in Brussels.
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