A former soccer federation chief and a member of parliament pleaded not guilty Tuesday to crimes-against-humanity charges stemming from the Central African Republic’s civil war, which erupted almost a decade ago. Taking place at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, this first global trial on these events comes as fresh violence tears through the CAR.
The charges facing Central Africans Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom include murder, torture, mutilation, rape and the use of child soldiers.
Both are accused of being key members of the country’s mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias, which revolted against Muslim Seleka rebels who seized power in 2013.
Wearing dark suits and mandatory coronavirus face masks during their first day of trial at the ICC, both men pleaded not guilty.
But prosecution lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye offered a different take.
“The victims of the Central African Republic conflict deserve to be seen, deserve to be heard, and they deserve their day in court," Vanderpuye said. "Justice must prevail. And the evidence in this case will establish the individual criminal responsibility of Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom for crimes against humanity and war crimes in violation of articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute.”
Ngaissona was the country’s onetime sports minister and later headed its soccer (football) association. His other alleged job: as a leader of the anti-Balaka movement. He was arrested in France in 2018.
Yekatom, a member of parliament, is accused of commanding the militias on the ground. He also was arrested the same year.
Human Rights Watch’s Associate International Justice Director Elise Keppler calls this trial a milestone—and says more must take place targeting all sides in the conflict.
“We’re in a situation right now where impunity has been a constant challenge for the Central African Republic," Keppler said. "Almost no perpetrator has ever been held to account for crimes … cycles of grave crimes committed in the country. And we see the effects of that fueling further violence.”
The trial comes as the CAR faces an upsurge in fighting, involving some of the same actors as a decade ago. That starts with former president Francois Bozize, whom the anti-Balakas supported, and whom the Seleka rebels ousted from power in 2013.
The current fighting erupted after Bozize was barred from running in December’s presidential election.
The CAR’s protracted violence has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, with many seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Even as he built his case against the two defendants, lawyer Vanderpuye said the trial was not an indictment of one or the other side of the conflict; there was enough tragedy, he said, for both to bear blame.
Last month, the first Seleka rebel arrested also was handed to the ICC.
Source: Voice of America