CAR: ‘Historic’ trial kicks off, but not without challenges

After seven years of waiting, the Special Criminal Court of the Central African Republic (CAR) is finally set to open its first trial in what could be a key moment in fostering accountability in a country scarred by decades of violence.

The court, known by its French acronym CPS, was set up in the capital Bangui to prosecute war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity committed in the country since 2003.

The case on Monday involves three suspects – Issa Sallet Adoum, also known as Bozize, Ousman Yaouba and Mahamat Tahir – who were members of the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) armed group, one of the most powerful rebel movements in the country.

They are accused of being responsible for the massacre of 46 civilians in two villages near the northwestern town of Paoua in May 2019. The initial date of the trial’s first hearing was set for April 19, but a no-show of the defendants’ lawyers due to disagreements over their wages delayed the opening.

The functioning of a criminal court inside the CAR is seen as a milestone for a country where the rule of law has been battered by years of intercommunal fighting, broken ceasefire agreements and mass atrocities often undocumented and carried out with impunity. Outside the CAR, three rebel group leaders are under trial, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

“This day definitely earned its place in the history of justice and fight against impunity in the Central African Republic,” said Gervais Bodagay, CPS’s spokesperson. “This first trial gives us hope and confidence of all the victims of crimes that have long gone unpunished,” he added.

What makes the criminal court “special” is its hybrid nature. Composed of 11 international and 10 domestic judges working along with the ICC, the United Nations-backed court has a five-year mandate renewable only once as the court is supposed to progressively hand over to the domestic judiciary system.

By being based within the country, it also offers broader resonance with victims, said Esti Tambay, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “It could be an important justice model for other countries to consider,” Tambay said.

The court was created in 2015 when the country was two years into a civil war showing that a judicial mechanism can be set up also in countries in the midst of a conflict.

Since independence in 1960, the country has been ravaged by multiple conflicts.

The latest round began in 2013 when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels removed then-president Francois Bozize triggering reprisals from mainly Christian armed groups called “anti-Balaka”.

But due to such context, the CPS has known, and is still facing, a barrage of challenges raising doubts about its effectiveness. For years since its creation in 2015, it has struggled to find buildings to operate and staff members, as well as to investigate in areas outside the more secure capital.

“This is an important test for the CPS to see if it can actually bring some justice,” Enrica Picco, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said, adding that its lack of activity has lowered expectations over what the court can deliver. But what is going to be crucial for the court to fully establish its authority, noted Picco, who has been following the CPS since its inception, will be the government’s actual engagement in the fight against impunity.

“The court’s authority has already been questioned,” Picco said. Five months before Monday’s trial, the CPS ordered the arrest of former rebel leader and current livestock minister Hassan Bouba.

He was arrested on charges related to crimes against humanity and war crimes. The court did not disclose details over the charges, but an investigation by American NGO The Sentry accused Bouba of being responsible for the 2018 massacre of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, in the town of Alindao.

At the time, he was the number two man of the UPC armed group which had already been accused by other human rights groups of several serious crimes, including rape and sexual slavery in 2014. Following the court’s order, Bouba was arrested and then released from prison within a week by CAR’s presidential guards – without judicial authorisation.

“That was a sign of the lack of willingness from the Central African state to support the activities of the Special Criminal Court,” Picco said.

Critics said the Bouba case was emblematic of the court’s challenge in securing arrests, especially when it comes to high-profile cases. They also underscored the need for cooperation within CAR between the government and the CPS, as well as international collaboration, considering that some of the main rebel chiefs accused of war crimes are in Chad and Sudan.

Last December, Amnesty International released a report noting that only one of 24 CPS arrest warrants had been executed since its inauguration.

Bodagay, the court’s spokesperson, said, however, that the court has been active with a dozen other cases being investigated and now ready for trial.

The defendants’ identities have not yet been disclosed, except for that of Eugene Ngaikosset, known as the “Butcher of Paoua”.

“This is a court that works in very difficult conditions and sometimes in areas under the control of the torturers,” Bodagay said. ­­­­­­­

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