Hassan Bouba Ali (R) with Ali Darassa (C) surrounded by other UPC leaders, during a meeting at their headquarters in Alindao, October 2017. © 2017 Alexis Huguet

(Nairobi) – The Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic has arrested and brought charges against a government minister for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an important step for justice, Human Rights Watch said today. A detention hearing for the minister, a former armed group leader, Hassan Bouba Ali, known as Hassan Bouba, will be held on November 26, 2021, based on a court order seen by Human Rights Watch.

Bouba was a leader of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a rebel group that emerged out of the fractured Seleka coalition. In 2017 he was named a special councilor to the president, then named the minister of livestock and animal health in December 2020.

“The UPC is responsible for many serious crimes in the Central African Republic since 2014,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Bouba’s arrest sends a strong message that even the most powerful can find themselves subject to the reach of the law and gives hope to the many victims of UPC crimes that they may one day see justice.”

The UPC started committing serious abuses in the Ouaka province in 2014, before it split from the rebel Seleka faction. From 2014 to 2017, Human Rights Watch documented at least 246 civilians killed, dozens of cases of rape and sexual slavery, and 2,046 homes burned by the UPC in the Ouaka province. In 2017 the UPC started to expand into the Basse-Kotto and Mbomou provinces.

In 2017 Human Rights Watch documented that at least 188 civilians had been killed in fighting between the UPC and anti-balaka fighters in the Basse-Kotto province, the majority killed by the UPC. The cases Human Rights Watch documented involving the UPC are most likely only a fraction of the total.

Bouba was expelled from the rebel group in January, after a surge in violence in the country when a new rebellion, of which the UPC was a member, began in December 2020. He was arrested at his office on November 19.

The Special Criminal Court issued a news release on November 22, saying that Bouba had been arrested, but it does not include any details on the crimes against humanity and war crimes that are charged. Bouba is being held at a military camp outside of Bangui.

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. Internationally accepted standards for fair trials, including the presumption of innocence and the requirement that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, are enshrined in the court’s rules of procedure and evidence.

The law to establish the court was adopted in 2015, but the court did not officially begin operations until 2018. The SCC was established after national consultations in 2015, known as the Bangui Forum, had prioritized justice, and stated that “no amnesty” would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes.

Bouba’s charges come two months after another high-profile arrest by the SCC. Capt. Eugène Ngaïkosset – known within the country as “The Butcher of Paoua” – whose arrest was confirmed on September 4, is charged with crimes against humanity. Ngaïkosset led a presidential guard unit 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.

Bouba is regarded as having moved up to the number two position in the UPC in October 2015 after his predecessor, Hamat Nejad, was killed in an ambush in Bangui. Human Rights Watch spoke and met with Bouba several times between 2015 and 2021, and shared research the organization had conducted on crimes that were committed by the UPC.

The UPC lobbied for a general amnesty during 18 months of peace talks negotiated by the African Union. The peace accord, finalized in Khartoum, Sudan, in February 2019, is vague on steps needed to ensure post-conflict justice and did not mention specific judicial processes, but it recognized the role impunity played in entrenching violence. While the accord did not mention amnesty, Bouba told Human Rights Watch in February 2019 that for the UPC, the peace deal means a general amnesty. “If the government arrests a member of an armed group, then there is no more accord,” he said.

On September 8 the SCC’s substitute prosecutor, Alain Tolmo, announced that the court intends to 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 to 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.

The SCC faces funding challenges and needs further support to continue to advance its important work, Human Rights Watch said. Organizations, including Human Rights Watch, wrote to members of the US Congress on November 18 to urge renewal of the US government’s important $3 million 2021 contribution to the court.

“The Special Criminal Court is playing a vital role in helping to puncture pervasive impunity in the Central African Republic,” Mudge said. “When Bouba was promoted to minister many felt it could be yet another example of how it can pay to commit serious crimes in the Central African Republic. His arrest is a warning to other suspects in positions of power that the reign of impunity in the country may be running short.”