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Central African Republic: Step Toward Accountability

Special Criminal Court Arrests Former Armed Group Leader

People stand by a Muslim store that was looted by anti-balaka fighters in Guen, Central African Republic, April 15, 2014. © 2014 Jerome Delay/AP Photo

(Bangui) – The Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic has announced that on June 16, 2024, it arrested a former anti-balaka leader, Edmond Beïna, for crimes committed in 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrest is a step toward assuring justice for victims of serious crimes in the country.

The court confirmed the arrest on June 21. The court charged Beïna with crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Guen, Gadzi, and Djomo, in the Mambéré-Kadéï province in the southwestern part of the country, in February and March 2014. Anti-balaka groups under the command of Beïna and a fellow armed group leader, Matruin Kombo, attacked civilians, killing at least 72 Muslim men and boys, some as young as 9, in attacks on February 1 and 5, 2014. The court arrested Kombo in November 2022. In addition to Kombo and Beïna, three other co-accused are detained by the court, charged with crimes arising out of the same facts.

“To date, there has been no accountability for the horrendous crimes committed in Guen, and impunity continues in the Central African Republic,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Special Criminal Court can change that narrative and finally deliver some justice to victims and their families who have been waiting for so long.”

The SCC was established to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed in the Central African Republic since 2003. It is based in Bangui, the capital and is staffed by national and international judges and personnel. It began its operations in 2018.

The anti-balaka militias rose up across the country to fight the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim coalition that took control of Bangui on March 24, 2013. The anti-balaka quickly began to target Muslim civilians, particularly in the west, equating them with Seleka or the coalition’s sympathizers.

Wounds of a victim of the February 1, 2014 anti-balaka attack on Guen. © 2014 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

In March 2014, a Human Rights Watch researcher spent several days in the country, speaking with survivors of the Guen and Djomo attacks. The victims, all Muslims and mostly elderly women and children, had sought refuge at a Catholic parish, where they were attacked.

The father of 10-year-old Oumarou Bouba said:

“I took my son when the anti-balaka attacked. As we were running away, he was shot by the anti-balaka. He was shot in the right leg and he fell down, but they finished him off with a machete. I had no choice but to run on. I had been shot too. I later went to see his body and he had been struck in his head and in the neck.”

On February 5, after looting Guen’s Muslim neighborhoods, the anti-balaka attacked a property where hundreds of Muslims had sought refuge. In this attack, the anti-balaka divided approximately 45 men into two groups, led them out of the compound, forced them to lie on the ground, and executed them.

Witnesses said that on March 6, the anti-balaka, under the command of Beïna and Kombo, went to the parish searching for the local imam from Djomo, Abdoulaye Liman, who had sought refuge at the parish, and killed him.

The Guen massacre demonstrated the utter lawlessness of the anti-balaka, the urgent need at the time for peacekeepers to act quickly to protect civilians, and the importance now—10 years on—to enforce the rule of law and deliver justice, Human Rights Watch said.

Beïna’s arrest comes as the SCC has made progress on some important cases. In October 2022, the court convicted three members of the 3R rebel group for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in May 2019 in the northwestern part of the country. The conviction was confirmed on appeal in July 2023.

The court’s second trial started in December 2023 and is ongoing. It relates to alleged crimes committed by factions of the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (Front populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), an armed group, in 2020 in the town of Ndele. Another trial for crimes allegedly committed by the group in Ndele in 2020 started in June 2024. In September 2023, the SCC also announced charges against Abdoulaye Hissène, an FPRC leader, for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in 2017; he remains in pretrial detention.

At the same time, the SCC continues to face challenges, including arresting some suspects. In May, the court issued an arrest warrant for former president François Bozizé, who is charged with crimes against humanity allegedly committed between February 2009 and March 23, 2013, by the Presidential Guard and other security services at a military training center north of Bangui. Bozizé, who returned to the country in 2019 as it was wracked with conflict and later emerged as a key leader in a rebel coalition, is currently hiding in Guinea-Bissau.

The current minister of livestock and animal health, Hassan Bouba, was arrested on November 19, 2022, on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges. He was escorted out of detention by national gendarmes in defiance of court orders on November 26, 2022, and failed to appear before the court.

While the security situation in the country has improved over the past decade, impunity for those responsible for serious crimes continues to fuel recurring cycles of violence, and armed groups continue to commit atrocities, leaving trails of death, displacement, and destitution.

The SCC plays an important role in ensuring justice for attacks on civilians over the past decade, like those at Guen or on camps for the internally displaced. The government and the court’s international partners should step up their efforts to support the court to ensure that it can effectively deliver on its crucial mandate, including through adequate resources and the prompt execution of pending arrest warrants, Human Rights Watch said.

“If adequately supported, the Special Criminal Court holds the promise of delivering justice for victims of the most serious crimes,” Mudge said. “Beïna’s arrest and charging show that justice, no matter how long it takes, will be served, and this is a clear warning to others who continue to commit atrocities in the Central African Republic.”

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