Last month I visited Bakala, a town in the center of the Central African Republic where serious fighting between two rebel groups had recently claimed at least 38 lives. A few brave residents showed me a well where seven bodies had been dumped. Nearby, we saw what looked like dried blood in a school where a man who managed to escape said 25 other people had been executed.

Bullet casings on the ground in Bakala, Central African Republic, after fighting between the UPC and FPRC in December 2016. Photo taken on January 22, 2017.

© 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch 

Ali Darassa, commander of the rebel group that witnesses identified as responsible for these killings, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), fiercely rejected the blame.  “These accusations have been made against me and my men in the past and yet look, here I am,” he declared. “I have not been arrested.”

 Since the country descended into political and communal violence in 2013, with thousands of civilians killed, nobody has been prosecuted for serious crimes. All sides have carried out executions and sexual violence.

Since last week, however, Darassa and the others should be less comfortable. On February 15, the president appointed Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa of the Democratic Republic of Congo as special prosecutor of a new Special Criminal Court. After years of impunity, the court offers a real chance to hold abusive commanders to account inside the country.

The court will consist of national and international staff and has a mandate to investigate and prosecute the gravest crimes committed in the country since 2003. It will partner with the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to prosecute crimes since August 2012 but will only be able to focus on a handful of high-level suspects.

Progress on the Special Criminal Court has been slow, but international partners have provided initial funding, and the appointment of the chief prosecutor is a crucial step forward. Next should come the prompt appointment of judges and further staffing, along with securing long-term financial support.  

The court will help break the cycle of impunity that has left the many armed groups free to kill at will.

A woman who fled Bakala after her husband was executed explained it well. “If my husband’s killers are allowed to keep killing, how can we return?” she said. “They must stop killing. They must know they will face consequences.”

The appointment of the chief prosecutor is a step toward enforcing consequences. That could move the country a step closer to peace.