"I contracted HIV [when] I was raped by Congolese rebels in 2002; I will be relieved if the perpetrators of this act of humiliation appear in court to be charged for what they did," a 44-year-old woman said in the CAR capital of Bangui on Tuesday. Her daughter, then aged 13, was also raped.
According to a local agency, Organisation pour la Compassion des Famille en Détresse (OCODEFAD), an estimated 1,000 women were raped by rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who entered the CAR to support the regime of President Ange-Felix Patassé.
The NGO, which supports victims of rape during conflict, said more than 20 men were also raped. Some victims have since died of HIV/AIDS, it said.
Announcing the investigation on 22 May, the ICC said it was acting on a referral by the CAR government. "My Office has carefully reviewed information from a range of sources. We believe that grave crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the Court were committed in the Central African Republic," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a news release.
"We will conduct our own independent investigation, gather evidence, and prosecute the individuals who are most responsible," he added.
The violence occurred when Patassé, who had led the country from August 1993, faced a bloody rebellion led by François Bozize. At the height of the conflict, rebels from the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) in the DRC were deployed in CAR to back Patassé.
Bozize overthrew Patassé on 15 March 2003, ending six months of fighting and forcing the Congolese rebels to leave the country. Patassé, exiled in Togo, was sentenced in absentia in August 2006 to 20 years' imprisonment with hard labour and fined a hefty sum for setting up fake companies.
According to the ICC, much of the killing, looting and rape occurred in October-November 2002 and February-March 2003.
This investigation marks the first time the ICC prosecutor is examining a situation where allegations of sexual crimes far outnumber alleged killings.
"Credible reports indicate that rape has been committed against civilians, including women, young girls and men. There were often aggravating aspects of cruelty such as rapes committed by multiple perpetrators, in front of third persons, with relatives sometimes forced to participate," the ICC said.
"Many victims suffered social stigmatisation and a number of them were infected with the HIV virus," it added, noting that at least 600 rape victims had been identified in a period of five months.
"The information we have suggests that the rape of civilians was committed in numbers that cannot be ignored under international law," said Moreno-Ocampo.
Speaking in Bangui on Tuesday, the CAR chief prosecutor Firmin Feindiro said: "This decision is the [culmination] of efforts by the CAR government to bring justice to hundreds of people who deeply suffered under the former regime."
The decision, he told IRIN, concerns key persons such as Patassé and the leaders of the MLC rebel group in the DRC. The third person accused of playing a key role was a personal military adviser to Patassé.
Edith Lawson Douzima, lawyer and coordinator of the ICC Coalition in the CAR, said: "It is a total satisfaction to hear that the ICC has decided to investigate, even though it took so long for the institution to react."
The investigation, she added, was a positive sign that the case could go forward. It would also help the country to know more about the serious human rights violations in that period.
However, one of Patassé's supporters, who requested anonymity, said: "There were human rights violations under the former regime but the rebellion headed by incumbent president François Bozize also committed crimes."
According to the ICC, the CAR's highest judicial body, the Cour de cassation, had indicated that the national justice system could not carry out the complex proceedings necessary to investigate and prosecute the alleged crimes. Under the Rome Statute that created the ICC - and to which CAR is a party - the court intervenes only when national judicial authorities are unable or unwilling to conduct genuine proceedings.
During the investigations, the prosecutor will also continue to monitor the current situation because of "worrying reports of violence and crimes being committed in the northern areas of the country bordering Chad and Sudan", the ICC said.
CAR Humanitarian Country Profile