Last week, anti-balaka militia leader Maxim Mokom was released by the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the court’s prosecutor withdrew charges, citing a lack of evidence and witnesses. Mokom’s case was not the only one stemming from violence in the Central African Republic since 2013, but his case’s termination is undoubtedly a disappointment to victims of anti-balaka attacks in 2013 and 2014.
Anti-balaka groups like Mokom’s rose up to fight the Seleka, a majority Muslim armed rebel group that tore its way through the country starting in late 2012. Many anti-balaka fighters associated all Muslims, including women and children, with the Seleka and targeted them.
Mokom became a government minister in 2019 after a peace deal ceded many top posts to rebels. But he fled to Chad the following year after having taken part in a rebel coalition that unsuccessfully tried to seize power. In March 2022, Chad surrendered Mokom to the ICC, which had issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, Mokom was convicted in absentia in September along with 23 others, including former President François Bozizé, by the appeals court in the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui, on charges that include undermining the internal security of the state and rebellion. Mokom was sentenced to life in prison. Trials in absentia raise serious concerns for the ability of an accused to exercise their right to a defense.
Mokom was the third anti-balaka leader sent to The Hague, and ICC prosecutions against the other two are ongoing. So far, only one Seleka commander, Mahamat Said Abdel Kan, is facing trial at the ICC. In August 2022, the court publicized an arrest warrant for Noureddine Adam, a principle Seleka leader in August 2022. He remains at large.
Mokom’s case signals continued challenges for the ICC prosecutor’s office to mount sufficient evidence in court. Concerns about the court’s performance, including in conducting effective investigations, have been at the heart of calls for an independent expert assessment aimed at improving its delivery of justice.
The ICC prosecutor has made strengthening investigations a key priority since taking up his post in 2021. Lessons from Mokom’s case should bolster those efforts so that the ICC can better deliver on its mandate to ensure the most serious crimes do not go unpunished.