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Central African Republic: Justice Needed for 2014 Massacre

Special Criminal Court Offers Crucial Avenue for Accountability

The sign outside the Notre-Dame church after the killings in May 2014, Fatima neighborhood, Bangui, Central African Republic, June 24, 2014. © 2014 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

(Nairobi) – Those responsible for a brutal attack 10 years ago on a Central African Republic church serving as a camp for displaced people still need to face justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

The May 28, 2014 attack at the Notre-Dame church in the Fatima neighborhood of the country’s capital, Bangui, took place less than a kilometer from African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces and is emblematic of the impunity that has enabled violence between rival armed groups to continue in the country for over a decade.

After the attack, Human Rights Watch confirmed that 17 people had been killed in the camp, allegedly by fighters aligned with the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim coalition of armed groups. However, the tally was most likely higher as some victims were buried immediately. The nearby AU peacekeeping mission did not provide security to the camp before the attack.

“The 2014 Fatima massacre was an egregious attack on civilians in the capital that highlights the problems international peacekeepers face in the Central African Republic,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Even years later, delivering justice now will send a powerful signal that while justice may take time, it will catch up with those responsible for the crimes.”

The attack falls within a broader pattern of violence in the country that the Seleka started a decade agoChristian anti-balaka militias rose across the country in response to the Seleka and quickly began to target Muslim civilians, associating them with the Seleka coalition.

The Fatima massacre is being investigated by the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in Bangui. In 2022, four armed group leaders aligned with the Seleka – Gary Hadiatou, Ali Abdel Kader, Oumar Al Bachir, and Yalo Amadou – were arrested in connection to the case. They have been charged with multiple counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In January 2023, the court’s deputy special prosecutor told the media that a trial could open in the first quarter of that year. The trial never did, and in June 2023, the court informed the media that one of the accused, Al Bachir, had died in hospital. This, coupled with the court’s requirement that pretrial detention cannot exceed three years, underscores the urgency for the trial to start.

The special court was established to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed in Central African Republic since 2003. It is staffed by national and international judges and personnel. Since it began operations in 2018, it has completed the prosecution of one case involving crimes in the northwestern part of the country in 2019. A second trial, started in December 2023, is ongoing.

The court recently issued an arrest warrant against former president François Bozizé for crimes against humanity allegedly committed between February 2009 and March 23, 2013, by the Presidential Guard and other security services under his responsibility at the Bossembelé military training center, referred to as “Guantanamo,” north of Bangui.

A family member of a victim of the killings in Fatima recently told Human Rights Watch: “Ten years later, we are still awaiting justice, we hope it comes soon.”

The Notre-Dame church in Fatima served as a camp for thousands of residents of Bangui displaced after the anti-balaka attacked the capital on December 5, 2013, prompting waves of violence and revenge killings. At least 7,000 people were at the camp on the day of the attack.

The attack came after months of tit-for-tat killings between anti-balaka and armed Muslims, some of whom were aligned with Seleka groups, from the Kilomètre 5 neighborhood, which borders Fatima.

On May 28, 2014, Seleka attackers from Kilomètre 5 arrived at the church. One witness told Human Rights Watch, “I saw more than 30 men on the road with guns, running to us. Since it was daylight, I could see them attacking. They did not hide their faces.”

Witnesses and survivors described a scene of total chaos as thousands tried to escape or hide. Some survivors piled into outdoor concrete pews behind the church.

The attackers entered the church from different directions. Multiple survivors and witnesses said that the attackers were armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades, and machetes. Many people recognized some of the attackers as Seleka fighters from Kilomètre 5.

A relative of Héritier Moket, a 15-year-old who was killed, said, “I was still in front of the church with Héritier; my wife and kids had already run behind the church. I saw the attackers coming and I told him to run. We were running around trying to escape but he was shot.”

Another survivor, who was badly injured on his face and arm by machetes, said he had been surrounded by about nine men. He said: “I put my hands up but they were already attacking. They asked in Arabic if I was an anti-balaka. I can speak some Arabic [so I told them I was not]. They said nothing, they just started striking me with machetes. I fell to the ground and was hit in the head until I lost consciousness, and they thought I was already dead.”

Another survivor, who was shot in the stomach, said, “I jumped into a toilet to hide and just a few seconds later they shot at it. A bullet went through my arm and entered my abdomen on the left side.”

Impunity for those responsible for serious crimes in Central African Republic has fueled recurring cycles of violence and emboldened armed groups to continue to commit atrocities, leaving trails of death, displacement, and destitution, Human Rights Watch said.

The attack at Fatima was among the first in a long line of egregious attacks on camps for the internally displaced in the country. The Notre-Dame church continued to serve as a displacement camp and was attacked again in 2018, when at least 16 people were killed and many others wounded.

“Central Africans have waited for a decade to see justice for brutal killings in Fatima and the Special Criminal Court holds the promise of delivering it,” Mudge said. “The government and the court’s international partners should step up their efforts to support the court to ensure that it can effectively execute its crucial mandate.”

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