The International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of two anti-balaka leaders, opening on February 09, will be the first since 2012 for serious crimes committed in the conflict in the Central African Republic, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yékatom are the highest ranking anti-balaka leaders to face trial, and the first at the ICC.
After Muslim Seleka leaders ousted President François Bozizé in 2012, Christian militias called anti-balaka engaged in brutal tit-for-tat attacks with the Seleka and whoever they perceived as supporting their enemies, leaving civilians caught in the middle.
“The opening of the Yékatom and Ngaïssona trial is a milestone for justice for victims of brutal crimes committed in the Central African Republic’s most recent conflict,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
Yékatom, known as “Rombhot,” was a master corporal in the national army before the conflict and then promoted himself to “colonel” when he became a key anti-balaka leader in 2013.
Ngaïssona was a self-declared political coordinator of the anti-balakas and later held a senior post at the Confederation of African Football.
Yékatom faces 21 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, while Ngaïssona faces 32 counts of these crimes.
The charges include intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population, murder, intentionally directing an attack against a religious building, deportation or forcible transfer of the population and displacement of the civilian population, persecution, and enlisting child soldiers.
Ngaïssona also faces a rape charge.
The court issued warrants for Yékatom and Ngaïssona in November and December 2018, and they were both transferred to the ICC shortly thereafter by the Central African Republic and France, respectively. In February 2019, the ICC joined their cases.
The trial comes on the heels of the Central African Republic’s transfer of the first Seleka-rebel suspect to the ICC, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, on January 24. He is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country’s capital, Bangui, in 2013.
More than 1,400 people are “victim participants” in the trial of Yékatom and Ngaïssona, represented by two sets of lawyers. Victim participation at the ICC allows victims, through their legal representatives, to contribute to the proceedings, separately from testifying as witnesses.
With the ICC based in The Hague, thousands of miles from the Central African Republic, court efforts to make the trial accessible to the local population are crucial, Human Rights Watch said.
The ICC plans to stream the opening of the trial in a courtroom in Bangui and broadcast it on television. The ICC will address key questions from affected communities on the radio and will also broadcast summaries and roundtables on trial developments.
The ICC opened an investigation into crimes in the Central African Republic since 2012 following a request from the Central African Republic government in 2014.
“The Yékatom and Ngaïssona trial and Said’s transfer should act as an unambiguous message to those that prey on civilians that they are not beyond the reach of the law,” Keppler said.
“But the ICC and the Special Court should move more cases forward to solidify a new era of accountability and bring justice to those most affected by the crimes.” (Source: HRW)