Nkunda Unlawfully Detained in Rwanda

Militia chief’s lawyer says he has information his client is being held by the military in Gisenyi.

Nkunda Unlawfully Detained in Rwanda

Militia chief’s lawyer says he has information his client is being held by the military in Gisenyi.

Wednesday, 18 March, 2009
Where is Laurent Nkunda? That’s what the lawyer representing the Congolese rebel leader who was arrested in Rwanda nearly two months ago wants to know.

Stéphane Bourgon says Nkunda is being held in a secret location, has yet to see a lawyer, or even appear before a judge to hear the charges against him. Rwanda has also denied all family requests for access to the deposed general and has refused to tell them where he is being held.

“This is a very unique situation, especially without him getting access to a lawyer. This is worse than Guantanamo,” said Bourgon, a Canadian who is also representing Drago Nikolic at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague. “We are of the view he is unlawfully detained.”

Nkunda is the former leader of the National Congress for the People's Defense, CNDP, which for several years fought the Congolese army in North Kivu.

Media reports at the time of his arrest in late January suggested he was fleeing to Rwanda after losing the leadership of the CNDP to Bosco Ntaganda. Rwanda has long been accused of backing Nkunda’s rebellion against the Congolese government which has displaced hundreds of thousands and created a humanitarian disaster in North Kivu.

Bourgon, however, insists Nkunda was in Rwanda at the invitation of the government to discuss a joint operation against the FDLR, a Hutu militia group operating in the east. “The meeting began and at some point he heard on radio he had been arrested. The officers who were accompanying him at the time were released and told to go, and that [Nkunda] was staying there,” said Bourgon.

Speculation about his whereabouts is rife. Some say he is in a prison near Kigali and others that he’s being held in a hotel or house in Gisenyi – just across the border from the North Kivu capital Goma.

Bourgon has received recent information that Nkunda is being held by the military in Gisenyi. He plans to petition a civilian court in the town for the general’s release after a military court last week refused to accept the motion. In the meantime, he says he has no idea where his client is being held. “I have been contacting all sides of the government of Rwanda trying to establish where he is and try to get access to him. That access was denied, and I was never provided with any information,” he said.

Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende would only say that Nkunda is still in Rwanda and that discussions about his return are ongoing. He told IWPR that Nkunda is being held incommunicado for his own protection but that he is in good health.

Mende suggested that as the former head of the CNDP, Nkunda could be eligible for the amnesty deal currently under negotiation.

As part of the January peace agreement that ended the fighting with the CNDP, the government offered an amnesty for acts of war and insurrection. However, the CNDP is demanding that war crimes and crimes against humanity be included to guarantee a lasting peace.

“We want a general amnesty without any conditions,” said Desire Kamanzi, the CNDP’s new president told IWPR. “This is one of the important things the CNDP is asking the government before signing a final peace deal.

“The amnesty does not concern only the CNDP but also the FARDC [Congolese army] as we fought on the same battlefield. The amnesty concerns also all the armed groups active in Kivu.”

He suggested Nkunda should be included in any deal. “It must benefit all the leaders of the CNDP without any exception,” he said.

But an amnesty for the likes of Nkunda and Ntaganda, leaders of militias accused of war crimes, hasn’t gone over well with some in Congolese civil society.

“Those people who want a general amnesty today, tomorrow they will decide to go back to the jungle and do whatever comes to their mind as they think that they are authorised to do everything they want and be granted amnesty,” said Immaculee Birhaheka, a member of local human rights group.

Should he end up in court, Mende insists that Nkunda could get a fair trial in Congo. “Mr Nkunda will receive the right of any arrested person, including the right to the defense,” he said.

Bourgon isn’t convinced. He says an immediate priority is to ensure the general is not extradited to Congo – a country that retains the death penalty and is notorious for its crumbled and corrupt judicial system.

“We don’t believe he can benefit from a fair trial in DRC … because what he was doing in his time in Congo was in straight opposition to the government,” he said.

Members of Nkunda’s CNDP are also uneasy at the prospect of a Congolese trial

“Nkunda is our brother and requires, as one of our leaders, honour and human dignity. We would not feel comfortable to see him held in prison and appear before justice. It would be a humiliation that we cannot support,” said an officer close to Ntaganda.

Lisa Clifford is the international justice/ICC project manager in The Hague. Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR contributor in Goma.

Ewing Ahmed Salumu contributed to this story.
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