A handful of suspects in the terror trial involving Paul Rusesabagina and 20 others, all members of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD and its armed wing National Liberation Front (FLN), returned to court to present their defense arguments after nearly a month in recess since the last appearance in the High Court Specialized Chamber for International and Cross Border Crimes on June 23.
The group has been on trial since 2020 face several terror-related charges emanating from several attacks carried out on Rwandan soil between 2018 and 2019, which claimed several civilian lives, damaged property and left permanent trauma to surviving victims.
Members of the terror group, a military wing of the MRCD Coalition led by “Hotel Rwanda” protagonist Paul Rusesabagina, are appearing before the court to respond to the charges sought by Prosecution last month, majority of whom with a prospect of serving up to 25 years and paying over 80 civil parties in the case who are seeking compensation. The victims are demanding damages of up to the tune of $2.3million.
While Rusesabagina does not come to court, his co- accused returned to court on Thursday to plea before the judge for leniency, claimed that they were coerced into joining FLN.
Emmanuel Nshimiyimana, one of the FLN members claimed he joined the MRCD-FLN coalition after being kidnapped from school in the country’s Western Province where he was smuggled into the DR Congo by FLN forces with his hands tied and forced to join the group.
Nshimiyimana told court that he tried to escape back to Rwanda but the FLN had a system of bribing DRC forces to assist the rebel group to re-arrest all the deserters, leaving them with little room to escape
“I tried to escape towards the UN peacekeeping forces (MONUSCO) but the FLN had offered a bribe to the DRC soldiers who blocked me. I didn’t escape towards Rwanda because we had been told the government would ‘kill’ us, so I stayed in the DRC jungles,” Nshimiyimana said.
Though ultimately he was later arrested in the jungles of Eastern DRC and handed over to Rwanda, Nshimiyimana pleaded guilty to being part of the FLN but begged the court to consider giving him leniency and instead rehabilitate him sincsince he was coerced.
His colleague, Emmanuel Iyamuremye said he was also blindly recruited into the force and didn’t participate in any of its armed attacks on civilians on Rwandan soil, though he was a member of the group like many other recruits- a fact that prosecution is aware of.
Iyamuremye pleaded guilty to being an FLN member but said that his FLN top command and leader like Joseph Gatabazi – an Operations (J3) commander is in Mutobo for rehab, arguing that he also deserves equal treatment especially considering the fact that he didn’t participate in any attack.
“I would like to be taken for civic education to be reintegrated in society since the time I spent in the illegal force and wasted my time and life. I need to be rehabilitated so as to be part of national development and if possible my sentence, if any, should be reduced or suspended,” Iyamuremye said.
His lawyer also agreed with the rehab move and said that he doesn’t have a bad intention joining FLN and thus cannot be asked to compensate victims but those who had a direct role in the attacks.
Another Emmanuel Shabani, also told court that he had not used his full mental judgment at the time when he was recruited by FLN who promised him a better life in a foreign country.
Court also heard that while FLN recruited its foot soldiers, most of them received a monthly stipend of $100 per month but Shabani and his colleagues said this pay cheque lured them to want to get rich quick.
One of them, Jean Berchmans Matakamba who also pleaded guilty said he has given prosecution all the evidence and truth on the Nyakarenzo attacks and persons involved thus stating that he trusts justice will be served with a possible pardon.
Drama in court
As other suspects pleaded guilty, Jean Claude Byukusenge said he wouldn’t go quite about one FLN suspect Nsabimana Jean Damascene who accused him of possessing grenades and a pistol yet the former was the one who distributed the grenades used in the Kamembe attack.
“We all had guns, all of us and each carried their own. There was an exchange of fire in which Damascene was amongst us. I wonder why he was lying yet he held a gun at the time,” he said.
To this effect, the suspect said that all FLN should pay compensation to the victims because the attacks were done by many members / groups in FLN and not a single person.
“I was paid $100 which cannot pay for the claims of victims but I accept to pay and would work hard to pay it, if so deemed by court,” Byukusenge said, “we all have to pay as FLN not as individuals who attacked site by site”.
Suspect Simeon Nikuze, also changed his stand in court rejecting his lawyer (Guido Ngamije Kirabo) who he accused in court for coercing him to plead guilty on involvement in the attacks.
Kirabo told the court this is not true. “I spoke to all my four clients together and asked Nikuze to speak if it is possible so as to get a lesser sentence but this was not done by force. He has also been very indecisive on the case but I have no problem if he drops me,” he said.
The case will proceed this July 16, 2021 online on the Rwanda judiciary YouTube channel.