STUTTGART, Germany – Two Rwandan militia leaders were accused of instigating "a reign of terror" and the killing of scores of civilians in eastern Congo as they went on trial in Germany Wednesday.
The men are charged with 26 counts of crimes against humanity and 39 counts of war crimes that prosecutors say were committed by militiamen under their command in Congo from January 2008 to November 2009.
Their trial marks the first time Germany is prosecuting someone under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows states to pursue foreigners for crimes carried out abroad. Human rights groups welcomed that as a milestone.
Defendants Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni are accused of leading a mostly ethnic Hutu militia at the time it killed at least 214 people, forced children to serve as soldiers, carried out countless rapes, burned down and pillaged several villages.
"Sexual violence was intentionally used as a means of war," prosecutor Christian Ritscher told the Stuttgart state court.
In one incident in the village of Busurungi in eastern Congo, the militia "shot, stabbed or hacked to death at least 96 civilians," burned some 700 homes and raped countless women, he added.
Both Rwandans already have been targeted by of U.N. Security Council sanctions such as an asset freeze and a travel ban in their capacity as chairman and vice president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda — a militia known by its French acronym FDLR.
"In all areas controlled by the FDLR ... civilians were and are exposed to a reign of terror," Ritscher added.
Neither the defendants nor their lawyers responded directly to the charges. But the attorneys decried the trial as politically motivated and filed a motion to have proceedings stopped immediately and their clients released.
The court did not rule on the motion Wednesday.
"The goal is to weaken the Rwandan opposition," defense lawyer Richard Sauer said. Germany's government is bowing to international pressure and seeks to strengthen Rwanda's government, he asserted.
The defense also maintained that evidence provided by the United Nations was incomplete.
Prosecutor Thomas Beck dismissed that as "propaganda that seeks to divert attention from the FDLR's deeds."
Murwanashyaka, 47, wore a blue shirt, glasses and a rosary around his neck. He appeared relaxed, waving to photographers at the start of the hearing.
He and Musoni, 49, were both living in Germany as asylum seekers at the time of their November 2009 arrest.
Prosecutors and U.N. investigators say Murwanashyaka remotely controlled the militia from Germany, giving orders by phone, text messages or Internet.
"According to our evidence the defendants knew everything that was happening on the ground," prosecutor Ritscher said. In addition to the war crimes charges, the pair are accused of leading a foreign terrorist organization.
The FDLR is made up mostly of Hutu refugees from Rwanda who took cover across the border in Congo after the 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed, mostly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.