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The Central African Republic government should immediately investigate and prosecute uniformed army officers who publicly lynched a man they suspected of being a Seleka fighter, Human Rights Watch said today. The extrajudicial killing and mutilation took place on February 5, 2014, immediately after the new president, Catherine Samba-Panza, addressed thousands of regrouped military officers, expressing her pride in the reconstituted army.

A few minutes after the ceremony, a group of uniformed army soldiers accused a man dressed in civilian clothes of belonging to the former Seleka rebels. The soldiers slashed the man with machetes, crushed his head with large stones, and cut off one foot and his other leg. They then put the body in the middle of the street, piled tires on it and set it alight.

“What should have been a moment of hope for the security of the Central African Republic turned into a horrific scene of bloodletting and mutilation,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “It is absolutely essential for President Samba-Panza to condemn this act of barbarity and prosecute the attackers.”

For more than half an hour, large crowds, including children, stood and watched the body burn, filming it on their phones. When French Sangaris forces arrived at the scene, they told the crowd to disperse, and reacted with horror when a young man walked up to them holding the severed leg of the lynching victim and then threw it on the fire.

Such brutal lynchings have become a regular occurrence in Bangui, the capital, as violence in the city spins out of control. In the last two weeks, Human Rights Watch researchers have witnessed mobs carrying out two lynchings and observed three other attempts that peacekeepers prevented. In one case, the Human Rights Watch team placed their car between a mob and its intended victim and took him to safety at a nearby Rwandan peacekeeper base. 

In another lynching witnessed by Human Rights Watch on January 29, anti-balaka fighters killed two Muslim shopkeepers near the airport of Bangui and mutilated the bodies of the two men by cutting off their hands and cutting off the penis of one man and putting it in his mouth. French peacekeepers where present for more than 40 minutes at that scene, but did not intervene to protect the bodies from mutilation. After Human Rights Watch raised concerns about this failure, the commander of the Sangaris forces ordered an immediate investigation. At the lynching on February 5, French Sangaris forces did indeed act to protect the body of the victim from further mutilation.

The predominantly Muslim Seleka took power in March 2013 and engaged in a 10-month reign of human rights and humanitarian abuse. Large numbers of army soldiers fled the violence, which in many cases targeted those suspected of loyalty to the deposed president, François Bozizé. The ceremony that Samba-Panza addressed, which dignitaries, diplomats, and the commanding officers of the French Sangaris and African MISCA peacekeeping forces attended, was to induct the new army of the Central African Republic.

“The Central African Republic authorities need to call on army officers and the population loudly and frequently to stop the kind of brutality we saw on Wednesday,” Bouckaert said. “After enduring so much abuse, the country’s residents want the government to usher in peace and justice, not more violence.”

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