Update: On February 8, 2021, the International Criminal Court announced that it had postponed the start of the trial to February 16. Human Rights Watch will send an update on February 15 to confirm that date.
Correction: This news release has been corrected to reflect the correct number of victims that have so far been allowed to participate in the trial phase, as opposed to during pre-trial proceedings.
(The Hague, February 7, 2021) – The trial of two anti-balaka leaders opening on February 9, 2021 will be the first before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for serious crimes committed in the conflict in the Central African Republic since 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch released a Question-and-Answer document about the trial, to explain the proceedings and to provide context.
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. “A justice void has fueled repeated violence in the Central African Republic, with a new wave of attacks in just the past two months. Fair, credible trials of atrocities are key for the country to break these cycles.”
The recent upsurge in violence surrounded the presidential election held on December 27, 2020. A new rebel coalition has carried out multiple attacks, leaving several peacekeepers dead and leading to further mass civilian displacement. The coalition consists of both anti-balaka and Seleka factions. The recent violence signals the end of a 2019 peace deal.
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. Human Rights Watch interviewed Ngaïssona on video on September 3, 2014, during which he did not contest that the anti-balaka were responsible for some abuses or that he was a leader of the anti-balaka.
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 1,000 people were “victim participants” in the pre-trial phase and over 300 have been recognized for the trial phase so far (with more anticipated), represented by two sets of lawyers. Victim participation at the ICC is an innovative feature of international justice that allows victims, through their legal representatives, to contribute to the proceedings, separately from testifying as witnesses. Participation may include questioning witnesses and making submissions on legal and factual subjects.
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.
ICC investigations in the Central African Republic are complemented by the Special Criminal Court, a court set up in Bangui staffed by international and Central African judges and prosecutors, and the country’s ordinary courts. The Special Criminal Court began operations in 2018 but has yet to hold its first trial. There also have been at least two proceedings against former anti-balaka commanders in domestic courts, including a 2020 trial of 28 anti-balaka fighters for crimes committed around the city of Bangassou.
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. This is the ICC’s second investigation into crimes committed in the country. The first investigation related to an earlier conflict, in 2002 and 2003, which resulted in the acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president from Congo.
“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.”