KIGALI— A Rwandan military court has ruled it is competent to try 14 civilians accused of involvement in terrorism. On Friday, a judge turned away a legal challenge to the court's competency by lawyers for the accused.
A trial of 14 civilians and two ex-soldiers restarted at the military tribunal this week after a three-month adjournment.
The defendants are charged with belonging to terrorist movements and with involvement in an alleged terrorist campaign last September, when grenades exploded in a market place and on a street in Kigali a few days before parliamentary elections.
The alleged ringleaders of the group were arrested in Uganda last year and extradited to Rwanda.
This week the court has seen video testimony from two of the accused, Joseph Nshimiyimana and Innocent Kalisa. Nshimiyimana is accused of bringing the grenades to Kigali from the Democratic Republic of Congo, although prosecutors say the people who actually threw the grenades are still on the run.
Kalisa is accused with a co-defendant, Lieutenant Mutabazi, of plotting to assassinate President Paul Kagame aboard a boat on Lake Muhazi in the east of the country.
On Friday, defense lawyers challenged the competence of the military court to try most of the defendants, who have yet to be called to answer precise charges.
One lawyer, Maitre Viateur, argued that for all 16 defendants to be tried together, the prosecution must show that the crimes they are charged with took place within a certain time and space.
"The place where these acts were committed must be specified," he told the court, arguing that "If you say it was in Congo and Rwanda and Uganda you might as well say it was in Australia or in Europe."
But a prosecution lawyer counters that whether the crimes were committed in Rwanda, Uganda or Congo, the essential point was the links between the accused.
The defense disputes these alleged links, which it says have not been demonstrated.
Before ruling on the defense lawyers' challenge, the court called on each of the accused to state their position.
All the civilians except one denied any link with the co-accused ex-soldiers - Mutabazi and Kalisa - and all denied any involvement in terrorism. They did admit to involvement in a banned political movement, the Rwanda National Congress.
Simon-Pierre Mahirwe, a teacher, says he does not accept that he should be tried alongside Lieutenant Mutabazi, because he does not know Mutabazi and Mutabazi never mentioned him in his testimony.
The other defendants echoed that view.
But in his ruling, tribunal president Major Bernard Hategekimana upheld the court’s competence to try the accused, and outlined alleged links between them.
He says the conclusion is that the supreme military court has the competence to judge all the accused and he is pronouncing this in their presence.
He further announced that the trial will continue on June 17.
One of the co-founders of the Rwanda National Congress, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, formerly a senior army commander, is currently in exile in South Africa, where he has survived two attacks by unidentified armed men.