Special Prosecutor Toussaint Muntazini (right) and five other judges of Central African Republic’s Special Criminal Court (SCC) sit at the National Assembly in Bangui, having been sworn in on June 30, 2017.  © 2017 Saber Jendoubi/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangui) – The Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic, in an important step for justice, has brought charges against Capt. Eugène Ngaïkosset, known within the country as “The Butcher of Paoua,” Human Rights Watch said.

His arrest was confirmed on September 4, 2021. On September 10 the SCC announced that it had charged Ngaïkosset with crimes against humanity, but did not specify details of the charges. Ngaïkosset is a former captain in the presidential guard who led a unit that is implicated in numerous crimes, including the killing of at least dozens of civilians and the burning of thousands of homes in the country’s northwest and northeast between 2005 and 2007. He is also alleged to have committed crimes as a leader of the anti-balaka movement, including in the capital, Bangui, in 2015. It is not known if the charges against him relate to any or all of these events.

“The little accountability for the types of crimes for which Ngaïkosset is charged underscores how impunity has long driven violence in the Central African Republic,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Many people across the country, including victims of the crimes and their family members, will follow Ngaïkosset’s case very closely. Fair, effective proceedings could mark a turning point for justice.”

Ngaïkosset’s arrest comes amid a surge in violence in the Central African Republic since a new rebellion began in December 2020, putting at risk a fragile peace deal signed between the government and several armed groups in February 2019.

The SCC is a novel court established to help limit widespread impunity for serious crimes in the Central African Republic. The court is staffed by both international and national judges and prosecutors, and benefits from international assistance. It has the authority to try grave crimes committed during the country’s armed conflicts since 2003. The law to establish the court was adopted in 2015, but the court did not officially begin operations until 2018. 

The SCC indicated that Ngaïkosset was informed of his rights and had a lawyer present when the charges were brought. The SCC also indicated that investigative judges for the court will consider whether he will continue to be detained pending further developments in the case, but a time for that consideration was not announced.

In 2005, Ngaïkosset, then a lieutenant, was the head of a presidential guard unit based in the town of Bossangoa at the beginning of a period of rebellions against the government of former President François Bozizé. He was among the untouchable commanders, loyal to Bozizé, heading units implicated in violations of international law, including serious human rights violations. Ngaïkosset’s alleged abuses include attacks against civilians suspected of supporting the Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (Armée populaire pour la restauration de la République et la démocratie, APRD), a rebel movement led by former presidential guards under former president Ange-Félix Patassé in the northwestern provinces, where Patassé was from. Bozizé deposed Patassé in 2003.

In 2007 Human Rights Watch documented at least 51 killings committed by presidential guards under Ngaïkosset’s command. In some instances, the killings were particularly brutal, and were considered warnings to local communities. For example, on March 22, 2006, Human Rights Watch documented that presidential guard troops led by Ngaïkosset beheaded a teacher in the village of Bemal. A month earlier, Human Rights Watch documented that this same unit killed at least 30 villagers in the same area, mostly by randomly firing on people as they tried to flee.

In 2018 a 79-year-old resident of Paoua told Human Rights Watch that Ngaïkosset and his men came into his shop in 2006, looted it, and then took him and one other older man outside of town in a pickup truck. “They said to us, ‘Bozizé told us to kill anyone who voted against him.’ But they spared me because I had been a soldier. The other man was around 70 years old, and we called him Tailleur [“tailor” in French”]. They made him walk away and they shot him in the back. People continue to talk about Ngaïkosset here. The relatives of his victims are all still here. He needs to go before a judge.”

In a 2008 meeting with Human Rights Watch, Bozizé denied that Ngaïkosset had committed any crimes from 2005 to 2007.

In April 2014 an arrest warrant was issued against Ngaïkosset for his role in abuses in the north under Bozizé’s rule, according to the United Nations secretary-general-appointed Panel of Experts. In May 2015 Ngaïkosset was transferred from Congo-Brazzaville to Bangui,. He was arrested and moved to the research and investigation section of the national gendarmerie, or the SRI, its French acronym. Five days later, he escaped, in circumstances that have not been explained. The circumstances around his escape and who may have facilitated it should be investigated, Human Rights Watch said.

Upon his escape from the SRI, Ngaïkosset was active with anti-balaka militias – a collection of local armed groups that emerged in mid-2013 to fight against the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel group that took power in 2013 – until at least the end of 2015. 

In December 2015 Ngaïkosset was placed on the UN sanctions list for perpetrating violence aimed at destabilizing the transitional government in September 2015 and for “planning, directing, or committing acts that violate international human rights law or international humanitarian law … including acts involving sexual violence, targeting of civilians, ethnic- or religious-based attacks, attacks on schools and hospitals, and abduction and forced displacement.” That same month, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control also sanctioned Ngaïkosset for “engaging in actions that threaten … peace, security, or stability.”

As early as 2009, diplomats in Bangui were urging judicial action against Ngaïkosset. In 2009 and 2010 Philip Alston, then the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, urged suspension, investigation, and prosecution of security forces implicated in abuse, starting with an investigation of Ngaïkosset. Despite the arrest warrant and the UN and US sanctions, the Defense Ministry, led then by Joseph Bindoumi, continued to pay Ngaïkosset’s national army salary in 2015. His salary continued to be paid until at least late 2018, according to the UN.

On September 8, 2021, the SCC’s substitute prosecutor, Alain Tolmo, announced that it will begin its first trials before the end of the year, and that the court has multiple cases under investigation. The court is based in Bangui, which will help Central Africans affected by the crimes more easily follow and interact with efforts to ensure that suspects face criminal accountability, Human Rights Watch said. The SCC’s judicial efforts operate in tandem with International Criminal Court investigations and prosecutions of serious crimes committed in the country, along with some cases dealing with lesser conflict-related crimes before the country’s ordinary criminal courts.

“Many in the Central African Republic associate Ngaïkosset with alleged rampant killings, destruction, and abuse, and yet part of his legacy is also the unwillingness of some Central African authorities to hold those responsible for serious crimes accountable,” Mudge said. “His arrest and charging, and the upcoming start of trials at the Special Criminal Court show that long-awaited justice can make progress, and should serve as a warning to others who would commit these crimes.”