Africa-Press – Rwanda. The trial of 21 individuals linked to terror attacks in southwestern Rwanda between 2018 and 2019 will come to an end on Monday, September 20. The High Court Special Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes will pronounce the verdicts for the accused, drawing a curtain on the trial that has gone on for close to one year, at least on first instance.
The accused were arrested at different times in different places, but the majority of them were arrested during an offensive against armed groups operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In this article, The New Times chronicles the key events that characterized this trial, starting with the attacks in which close to ten people were killed.
1. The Nyabimata attacks
June 19 2018, is a day many residents of the remote Nyabimata Sector of Nyaruguru District will never forget. In the cover of darkness, unknown gunmen attacked the area and killed people, looted property and destroyed others.
The attack that was later claimed by FLN, a militia group whose spokesperson at the time, Callixte Nsabimana, who calls himself Sankara, said had declared war on Rwanda, saw a SACCO branch in the area looted.
Two people were killed on the spot while another one later succumbed to injuries. Several others sustained injuries. The assailants made off with people’s harvest and also burnt the car belonging to the sector executive secretary, Vincent Nsengiyumva.
2. The Nyungwe attacks
December 15, 2018 was arguably the bloodiest of the attacks that were carried out by FLN militiamen against civilians in Rwanda. The attack targeted public transport along the Rusizi-Kigali highway. Here, the assailants ambushed three buses in the Nyungwe forest, killing at least six passengers, and setting vehicles ablaze.
The youngest victim was aged 13, while a bride-to-be was among the dead. Dozens of other passengers sustained injuries including Alice Kayitesi, whose life turned for worse during the attack.
Besides Nsabimana, other political leaders of the outfit, including Paul Rusesabagina, would go on international media and other platforms to chest-thump about the attacks.
3. The Rusizi attacks
During the following year, precisely on October 19, 2019, attacks by the same group continued, this time in Rusizi district. Various attacks were to take place in different parts of the Kamembe town, the major one of which took place near a bar called Stella. Here, grenades were lobbed at a group of people, leaving many injured, four of them seriously.
4. The arrest of Callixte Nsabimana
On May 17, 2020, a sigh of relief came to many, especially residents of the different districts of south-western Rwanda, when Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) presented to Rwandans Callixte Nsabimana.
A few days later, while appearing before Gasabo Primary Court, Nsabimana pleaded guilty to the attacks and other atrocities committed by the group. Later during the trial, he said that while he ordered the attacks, he never deliberately sanctioned attacks on civilians.
“From today onwards, I am done with FLN and whatever else they may do is on them not me,” he told court. “I did not give them the instructions to kill civilians and I take responsibility for my part in it.”
5. The arrest of Rusesabagina
In a move that made much news, on August 31 last year, RIB announced that it had arrested Paul Rusesabagina, the founding leader of the MRCD, the political outfit that birthed and financially sponsored the FLN militia.
He was presented to media at the RIB headquarters in Kigali, and days later was taken to court where he was charged on nine counts linked to terrorism.
Rusesabagina had been tricked into a trip to Burundi, where he thought he was travelling to meet political leaders with whom he wanted to discuss the operations by FLN, as it later emerged in court.
6. The merger of Nsabimana, Rusesabagina cases
Few weeks later, on October 5 last year, prosecution expressed its intentions to merge the trial of Paul Rusesabagina with that of Callixte Nsabimana, and other 19 FLN suspects – mainly combatants. Prosecution’s argument was on the basis of “connectivity of offenses.’
“When a group of defendants is charged with the same crimes (committed) in the same place at the same time, it is in the interest of justice for court to consider the cases together,” Aimable Havugiyaremye, the Prosecutor General said.
Later, the case was merged as the trial kicked off early this year before the judges of the High Court Chamber for International and Cross Border Crimes.
Due to the number of suspects and the need to observe Covid-19 preventive measures, the trial was held in the chambers of the Supreme Court in Kigali. The trial was also live-streamed.
7. Man who facilitated arrest of Rusesabagina testifies
Bishop Constantin Niyomwungere, a Burundian-Belgian national who assisted in bringing Rusesabagina to Rwanda to face justice showed up in court on March 5, 2021 and gave a detailed account of Rusesabagina’s travel to Rwanda.
A former close friend of Rusesabagina, he said the two met in 2017 through a mutual friend. He said that his friend always talked about MRCD and FLN during their conversations.
He however explained that at one time he was shocked to hear on radio that MRCD-FLN had carried out armed attacks in Rwanda that claimed innocent lives.
“When I confronted him, he told me that he was not bothered by innocent lives lost during the FLN attacks but instead, he was more concerned by the fact that their Spokesperson had claimed the responsibility,” he said.
He added; “I will never forget the lack of empathy in his eyes.” Niyomwungere was later arrested by RIB, interrogated and agreed to assist them bring Rusesabagina to justice, which he did.
Later, he convinced Rusesabagina to allow him to accompany him on a trip to Burundi to meet some officials. He confessed to court that he lied to his friend about the destination of the private jet they boarded, telling him that it was going to Burundi, yet it was heading to Rwanda. When they touched down, Rusesabagina was greeted by RIB operatives who arrested him.
8. Rusesabagina boycotts the trial
On March 12, 2021, Paul Rusesabagina boycotted the trial, saying he will not show up in the court again, since he did not expect to get justice from it.
His absence was linked to the decision taken by court to reject his request to push the trial to six months which court ruled was not justified. The High Court Special Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes resolved that the case would continue despite Rusesabagina’s absence.
9. Painful testimonies by victims of the attacks
On June 16, 2021, prosecutors presented to court some of the victims of the FLN attacks, who talked about how they were affected by them. They narrated their ordeals from those who were injured to those that lost loved ones in the fateful attacks.
Among others, Alice Kayitesi, a survivor of the Nyungwe attacks asked court to allow her to meet face to face with Paul Rusesabagina and Callixte Nsabimana.
10. Prosecution seeks for penalties for the suspects
On June 25, prosecution pronounced to the penalties that they thought were worth to be given to the suspects, once they are convicted. Here, the prosecutors asked the court to hand a life sentence to Paul Rusesabagina, and a 25-year jail term for Callixte Nsabimana.
They went forward to ask heavy penalties for the group, where for some, life imprisonments were asked, or jail terms of up to 25 years. Later, all suspects – except Rusesabagina who didn’t take plea – prayed to court that they had been cooperative, adding that this should be considered a mitigating factor for the court to prefer lenient sentences. Judgement day is finally coming on Monday, September 20.