KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda's Supreme Court has ruled that only the country's military court can hear a plea seeking the release of former Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda, his lawyer said on Saturday.
Aime Bokanga, counsel for the former leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), told Reuters he was relieved that his client had finally secured a court hearing but disappointed the court had not ruled his detention illegal.
Nkunda has been under house arrest since January 22, 2009 after entering Rwanda from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where his CNDP rebel force had repeatedly routed the army.
After two wars between the Great Lakes neighbours and years trading accusations of backing the other's rebels, Rwanda and Congo mended relations in a deal that analysts say hinged on Nkunda's arrest and Rwandan help ending the rebellion.
But Nkunda has not been charged in Rwandan courts, nor has the central African nation yielded to Congolese calls to transfer him to Kinshasa, which accuses him of war crimes.
Bokanga said the court argued that General James Kabarebe, Rwanda's Chief of Defence staff, was responsible for Nkunda's detention and so only a military court would determine his fate.
"The most important thing for us now is to prove to court that Laurent Nkunda is illegally being detained," he said.
"Now the Supreme Court has made a decision for the military court to hear this case. We have been told that the file will be transferred to the military court next week. At least there is some satisfaction that finally the case will be heard."
Despite the ruling, Bokanga expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court did not rule on the legality of Nkunda's detention.
"It is also quite disappointing because the case is dragging. Rwandan law gives the Supreme Court judge the ability to make a ruling without referring this case to another court. The supreme court could have taken cognisance of this case."
Bokanga said he would advise his client to seek legal redress in an international court if they run out of options.
Rwandan Minister of Justice Tharcisse Karugarama said the case had taken a long time because international law and the laws of two countries had to be taken into account.
"The supreme court has now identified a court that is competent," he told Reuters.
"He is a general accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. You don't just take that person and hand over to authorities on the Congo border ... let's give the judiciary a chance to finish it."