The Central African Republic’s National Transitional Council has taken decisive action for justice for the victims of atrocities by adopting a law to establish a Special Criminal Court within the national justice system, 23 Central African and international human rights organisations said today. 
The draft law, which the government sent to the transitional parliament on February 6, 2015, was adopted by an overwhelming majority on April 22 during a plenary session. The special court will investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic since 2003.
“By approving the Special Criminal Court, National Transition Council members said that ‘enough is enough’ with impunity and showed that they firmly stand on the side of justice for the victims who lost their lives or suffered atrocities,” said the human rights organisations. “There is no time to lose for the government and its international partners to ensure that the Special Criminal Court is up and running as soon as possible.”
The court, as set out in the law, will be a hybrid judicial mechanism made up of Central African and international judges within the Central African justice system for a renewable five-year period. The court will have a Central African president and an international special prosecutor. There will be a majority of national judges.
The Central African authorities have repeatedly admitted the weaknesses of the national justice system, the groups said. The system has been ravaged by years of conflict and it lacks the manpower, material resources, and expertise to handle difficult investigations into complex crimes. Given that the investigations will touch on atrocities committed by armed groups still operating in the Central African Republic, the Special Criminal Court will also play an important role in facilitating the protection and safety of judicial staff, victims, and witnesses.
“Mass crimes cases are extremely complex to investigate and cannot be treated like an ordinary theft,” said the organisations. “The Special Criminal Court will be a specialized tool to support the Central African justice system in dealing with grave human rights violations and ensuring the security of judges and witnesses.”
The law establishing the Special Criminal Court must now be enacted by the head of state of the transition, Catherine Samba-Panza. The law provides for setting up the court in stages. The judicial police, investigative judges, and office of the prosecutor are to start work first so that investigations can begin as soon as possible.
Numerous victims of serious crimes committed since 2012 are awaiting justice, the organisations said. The United Nations peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA, has already arrested several suspects allegedly involved in serious crimes in recent months, including three leaders of the militia known as anti-balaka, and judicial proceedings against them need to move forward. To become a reality, and to be ready to investigate and judge the atrocities that continue to be committed in the country, the Special Criminal Court now needs qualified personnel, funding, and political support, at the national and international level, the groups said.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the government and MINUSCA, as well as the law establishing the court, anticipate that MINUSCA will provide the new court with considerable assistance, particularly support for logistics, investigations, arrests, and the nomination of international personnel. The UN Security Council should facilitate financial and logistical support for the court through MINUSCA’s mandate, which is up for renewal in April.
It will be crucial for the international experts and judges who will support the national personnel to have experience in prosecuting the most serious crimes and the desire to share this expertise and work closely with their Central African peers, the organisations said.
The organisations took note of the fact that the plenary of National Transitional Council removed from the law a provision specifying that there should be no immunities before the Special Criminal Court, which was in accordance with international law on grave international crimes. However, article 162 of the Central African criminal code clearly states that there can be no immunity from prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Immunities also do not apply before the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, the organisations noted that any re-trial after the phase of appeal based on new facts should only happen exceptionally, under strict conditions, and before the Special criminal court.
The new law also provides for cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which opened a second investigation in the Central African Republic in September 2014. This will be the first time that a hybrid court has been established in a place where the ICC is also active.
The Central African Republic has been in acute crisis since early 2013, when the rebels of the Seleka coalition, largely from the northern part of the country, seized power in a campaign characterized by widespread killing of civilians, burning and looting of homes, and other serious crimes. In mid-2013, militias calling themselves the anti-balaka organised to fight against the Seleka. The anti-balaka began committing large-scale reprisal attacks against civilians, mostly Muslims thought to be supporting the Seleka. Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the conflict.
“With the referral to the ICC and the establishment of a hybrid court, the Central African Republic is innovating and demonstrating its strong commitment to combating impunity for the most serious crimes,” said the organisations. “The two courts will have to share the workload and develop arrangements governing their mutual cooperation to maximize their efficiency and increase opportunities for justice.”