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Rwanda Looking for Legal and Political Solution to Nkunda Case

Rwanda shocked many earlier this year when it arrested its former ally, Laurent Nkunda. Now Rwanda has to decide what to do with him.

What do you do with a dissident general from another country arrested in your territory? That is a question Rwanda's judiciary system has been working to answer since Laurent Nkunda's arrest in January.

Nkunda is a former general in the Congolese army, whose armed rebellion has destabilized much of eastern Congo for years. He is not accused of committing any crimes in Rwanda. But Rwanda's constitution forbids the extradition of anyone to a country where they could face a death sentence.

Nkunda is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Congo and could face the death penalty if tried there.

Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama is well aware of the difficulties.

"This is not a particularly easy case, because it sets out, or calls to question a number of legal issues that have to be examined, that have to really be given legal treatment for them to arrive at a decision that is legal in the eyes of the region and the eyes of the international law," he said.

In addition to the legal issues raised in Nkunda's case there are also important political considerations. Nkunda claimed he was fighting to protect ethnic Congolese Tutsis from the FDLR, another rebel group made up of remnants of the former Rwandan military and militias that carried out the genocide here 15 years ago.

Many Tutsis, both in Congo and in Rwanda, still see Nkunda as a hero. But his CNDP rebels have displaced hundreds of thousands in Congo, and the Congolese government has filed a formal request for extradition.

Minister Karugarama says that therefore the solution must be political as well as legal.

"The peace in eastern Congo is very, very important. But that raises political questions," he said. "The fate of Nkunda therefore has both legal and political connotations, both for the justice system and for the political questions posed in eastern Congo. We think that there is a need, while we are treating this matter, to examine the effect, or the impact of whatever decision that will be taken on the peace process in eastern Congo."

Minister Karugarama says discussions will continue between Kinshasa and Kigali, as well as between the Congolese government and various rebel factions. He also says the legal process will require time and patience, and he is unwilling to make a guess at Nkunda's future.

"If I did that I would be doing what we call legal speculation, and that's always dangerous," he said. "You have to avoid being speculative in law. A matter before a court of law is really best handled by waiting to hear a court verdict."

At the request of Nkunda's lawyers a preliminary hearing was held yesterday in Gisenyi, near the Congolese border. The hearing was over legal procedures and was not a criminal proceeding, nor did it bear on Nkunda's potential extradition to Congo.