April 20, 2009 / 7:05 PM / 10 years ago

Rwanda rejects suit for release of Congo rebel

* Rwanda throws out suit by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda

* Defence lawyer says will appeal

By Hereward Holland

KAMPALA, April 20 (Reuters) - A Rwandan court has rejected a suit seeking the release of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda on the ground that he is being held illegally, his lawyer said on Monday.

Rwandan authorities put Nkunda under house arrest in January. He is wanted by officials in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where he is accused of committing various crimes during his five-year eastern rebellion.

Nkunda’s lawyer, Stephane Bourgon, says Rwanda has detained the former warlord illegally, without formal charges, and has denied him access to legal counsel.

"We believe this decision is erroneous ... and we intend to appeal," Bourgon told Reuters by telephone from the Rwandan town of Gisenyi. "If there are no charges against Laurent Nkunda, he must be released."

Congo has asked Rwanda to hand over Nkunda, whose rebellion in Congo’s mineral-rich eastern borderlands peaked late last year when he captured large swathes of territory and threatened the regional capital Goma.

Kinshasa wants to put Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi rebel, on trial for massacres, rapes and recruiting child soldiers.

"The judge is asking him to prove what the charges against him are, when he has never been informed what they are," Bourgon said. "It’s circular reasoning, it’s a dog biting its tail and it’s simply unacceptable."

Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama was not immediately available for comment.

Last week, however, he said Nkunda’s arrest was fundamental to promoting regional peace and various legal and political issues needed to be resolved before he could be extradited.

According to Karugarama, Rwandan law stipulates that the government cannot extradite suspects to countries where they could face the death penalty.

Relations recently thawed between the two Great Lakes states, which previously traded accusations of backing each other’s rebels.

At Congo’s invitation, Rwanda sent some 3,500 troops across the border in January to help fight Hutu militia who are seen as the root cause of a 15-year regional conflict in which some 5.4 million people have died. (Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Tim Pearce)

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