War crimes in Central African Republic: Special Criminal Court’s first trial

Saber Jendoubi / AFP

Bangui, Paris, The Hague, 16 May 2022. Nearly seven years after its creation, the Central African Special Criminal Court (CPS) officially opened its first ever trial for international crimes on 19 April 2022. On 16 May 2022, after two postponements, hearings finally began in this landmark case.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Central African Human Rights League (LCDH), and the Central African Human Rights Observatory (OCDH), which have been working with Central African victims for many years, are delighted with this long-awaited and significant step forward in the fight against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic (CAR). Our organisations hope that the conditions for a fair trial will be respected and will allow the victims to have the central place they deserve.

The opening of a first trial at the Special Criminal Court (SCC), albeit belated, is a significant step and, we hope, a major step towards more comprehensive justice for Central African victims. Despite the efforts of ordinary national courts to prosecute the perpetrators of the most serious crimes committed in CAR in the absence of an effective specialised court, the results remain insufficient. In practice, few perpetrators are held accountable, human and financial capacities are limited, and the gravity of international crimes is not always adequately reflected. Our organisations note, however, that on 19 April 2022, while the opening of the trial before the SCC was postponed, a criminal session opened at the Bangui Court of Appeal involving more than 120 defendants, after more than two years of standstill.

Before the International Criminal Court (ICC), which also has jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity in CAR, a few proceedings are underway (against three anti-balaka and one Séléka), but they are thousands of kilometres away from the victims and the places where the abuses took place. The SCC, as an institution based in Bangui, composed of national and international civil servants and supposed to deal specifically with serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed since 1 January 2003, is therefore poised to play a key role in the fight against impunity for crimes committed in CAR.

Today, it is members of the "3R" (Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation) rebel group who are being called to account before the judges, Messrs Issa Sallet Adoum, Ousman Yaouba and Tahir Mahamat. The former allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the villages of Lemouna and Koundjili on 21 May 2019 — crimes that our organisations have helped to document.

On 17 May 2022, other officials are expected to be targeted, including those higher up in the chain of command of this group or any other party to the conflicts that have ravaged the CAR since the beginning of the 21st century. As the SCC has been widely criticised for its slowness and lack of transparency, it is essential that the opening of this first trial is followed by real and visible efforts to hold other perpetrators to account.

While all eyes will be on the progress of this first trial, whose postponements from the official opening until now are beginning to raise many concerns, our organisations recall the importance of victims being able to play a central role in these proceedings, and of their rights being respected. We also call for the respect of a fair trial and hope that the working conditions of all actors involved in the trial — one of the reasons for the postponements — will be in line with human rights standards. Our organisations, which are committed to the Central African victims in this trial, will follow the hearings very closely.

→ See our Q&A to learn more about the Court, the trial, and what it represents.

Read more