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‘’On trial, these warlords lowered their eyes’’: The Central African Republic’s challenging pursuit of justice

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Central African Republic: While many ‘people are hungry for trials’ some warlords still walk free

22 October 2020, 00:01 UTC

  • New Amnesty report takes stock of latest developments in the fight against impunity
  • Two years on, the Special Criminal Court needs to show more transparency in its judicial activities
  • Justice system needs stronger efforts to prosecute, in fair trials, those who have killed, raped and abducted civilians

Despite a few investigations and trials these past few years, many perpetrators of horrendous human rights violations and abuses in the Central African Republic (CAR) have not been brought to justice two years after the inauguration of the country’s Special Criminal Court (SCC), Amnesty International said today.

Throughout decades of conflict in CAR, various armed groups and individuals have enjoyed impunity for crimes under international law including unlawful killings and sexual violence.

In a new report, ‘’On trial, these warlords lowered their eyes’’: The Central African Republic’s challenging pursuit of justice, Amnesty International found that the SCC’s progress has been hampered by deficiencies in the Court’s operationalisation and a lack of transparency, while CAR’s national justice system is too weak to address the vast scale of the violations. It also highlights the remaining efforts to be made to ensure trials before ordinary courts and the SCC are fair.

“Civilians have borne the brunt of successive waves of violence and armed conflict since 2002 in CAR. Thousands have been killed, raped, and over half a million people are still displaced. Impunity is an affront for the victims and a blank check for perpetrators of crimes. The inauguration of the SCC provided a glimmer of hope for victims, but progress is slow. Ten cases are currently before investigating judges, and the SCC has refused to disclose the identities of the 21 individuals arrested following its investigations, without providing reasons for such refusal,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Director.

“CAR’s national justice system is severely under-resourced. With armed groups including ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka still carrying out regular attacks against civilians, it is clear that much more needs to be done to end the cycle of impunity that continues to cause so much suffering.”

The Special Criminal Court is an UN-backed hybrid tribunal mandated to investigate and prosecute, for a renewable five-year period, crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations committed in CAR since January 2003. It was established by a June 2015 law and was inaugurated on 22 October 2018. It is complementary to the mandate of the ICC and the ordinary courts of CAR.

Lack of transparency and unknown suspects at the SCC

Amnesty International researchers conducted remote interviews with judges, prosecutors, lawyers and activists, as well as reviewed more than 100 legal documents. At least 122 complaints have been received by the Office of the Special Prosecutor of the SCC, and ten cases are now before the investigating judges. But little is known about the events and crimes concerned or the progress of these cases. These proceedings lack transparency and suspects held in pre-trial detention remain unknown to the public.

At least 21 individuals have been arrested in the context of these investigations and are currently in pre-trial detention. Three of those in detention were arrested following killings committed in Paoua (North West) in May 2019. Nine individuals were arrested on 19 May 2020, in connection with killings perpetrated in Ndele (North East) in 2019 and 2020; and nine were arrested on 25 May 2020 in relation to attacks against civilians committed in Bambouti, Obo and Zemio (South East) in 2020.

While investigations started in 2019 and trials are expected to start in 2021, the operationalisation of the SCC is facing some serious challenges, impeding its proper functioning. Among these challenges are the recruitment of international judges and the delay in the establishment of the Court’s legal aid system.

Amnesty International spoke to staff working at the SCC, and staff of the UN working in support of the SCC, who confirm difficulties to receive adequate applications for international judges due to the security and political situation in CAR, as well as the requirement to have French speakers having experience in the civil law system.

For example, the mandate of a judge appointed at the SCC Investigating Chamber has lapsed but she is yet to be replaced. This leaves the Chamber with only one international judge, to deal with all ongoing proceedings. Consequently, cases to be currently examined by the Chamber are suffering from delays. While we welcome authorities’ efforts to address impunity through the SCC, the fact remains that many victims are still waiting for justice for crimes committed almost two decades ago. Justice needs to be done and seen to be done,” said Samira Daoud.

“We call on UN member states to consider making contributions to the SCC, to ensure it can fulfil its mandate and deliver long-awaited justice, and we call on Francophone States to urgently submit applications to second judges to the Court.”

Resumption of criminal sessions

After years of interruption, CAR’s ordinary courts resumed criminal trial sessions in 2015. While this was a positive development, the justice system faces multiple challenges including lack of personnel, infrastructure and material. Out of the 24 tribunals required to be established by law, only 16 were operational at the time of writing of the report.

The number of criminal sessions organized per year also remains below the minimum required by law and the number of cases going on trial are insufficient with regards the scale of crimes committed since 2002. In 2019, just 20 criminal cases were concluded in the entire country.

In addition, CAR’s police and judicial authorities lack independence from the executive power, while ongoing conflict and insecurity present further challenges. One worker at a legal aid organization told Amnesty International that the prevalence of armed groups means some judges cannot travel safely within their own jurisdictions.

It is difficult to confirm the exact number of conflict-related criminal proceedings brought before ordinary criminal courts in CAR and whether they were compliant with international fair trial standards.

The vast majority of known criminal cases which have brought against members of anti-Balaka or ex-Seleka since 2015 appear to deal with low ranking individuals; and appear to relate to crimes against the state, rather than human rights violations and abuses.

Amnesty International is aware of two cases where former anti-Balaka members have been tried by the ordinary criminal court in Bangui over crimes against civilians.

On 22 January 2018, the court found anti-Balaka commander General Andjilo guilty of criminal conspiracy, assassination, illegal possession of weapons of war, aggravated theft and sequestration.

In February 2020, the court issued its first conviction on charges of crimes under international law, in relation to an attack on 13 May 2017 by the anti-Balaka group in Bangassou (South East). During the attack, 72 people were killed, including civilians and ten UN peacekeepers, and thousands were forced to flee the town.

Five individuals - Kevin Bere Bere, Romaric Mandago, Crepin Wakanam alias Pino Pino, Patrick Gbiako and Yembeline Mbenguia Alpha – who were identified as anti-Balaka leaders, were found guilty of several charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The trial hearings were broadcasted in their entirety via radio and television.

A former judge told Amnesty International:

“…Warlords who used to be very powerful […] became small people again. Victims directly spoke to the accused during hearings, and these warlords lowered their eyes! We could feel justice was being done. Those were really powerful moments, appreciated by the population.”

In July 2020, military judges were appointed. It was the first time since the adoption of the 2017 military justice code, opening the way to future proceedings before military courts. Amnesty International urges CAR authorities to amend the law to ensure that the jurisdiction of military courts is limited to purely military offenses committed by military personnel. The law must explicitly exclude crimes committed against civilians from the jurisdiction of military courts, in accordance with international standards.

“Most individuals who are alleged to be most responsible for crimes committed since 2012 on both sides, ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka, still live freely in the country and some continue to commit violations,” said Samira Daoud.

“Victims’ rights to obtain truth, justice and reparations in a reasonable time should not be sacrificed in the name of political calculations, often proven to be counterproductive too. Hence the fight against impunity should remain a top priority. Justice against the little and without due process will not be justice.”