Q&A: Opening of the first trial before the Special Criminal Court in CAR

Florent Vergnes / AFP

Nearly seven years after its creation in 2015, and despite obstacles that led to a postponement until 16 May 2022, the Central African Special Criminal Court (SCC) is experiencing the opening of its first ever trial for international crimes. This is a long-awaited and significant step forward in the fight against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The opening of a first trial at the SCC, albeit belated, is a milestone. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) hopes it will be a major step towards more comprehensive justice for Central African victims.

→ Read the press release here.
→ Read the Q&A on this topic below.

1. What’s going on in Central African Republic?

The start of the first ever trial of the Special Criminal Court (SCC)!
This court is a special jurisdiction within the Central African justice system created by law n°15.003 of 3 June 2015 to "investigate, prosecute and judge serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed on the territory of the Central African Republic since 1 January 2003, as defined by the Central African Penal Code and international law [...], in particular the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes".

At the end of April 2022, almost seven years after its creation, the SCC judges will finally hear a long-awaited first case for crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is a significant step in the fight against impunity for perpetrators of crimes on Central African territory, which could give new hope in justice (despite the two successive postponements that have resulted in a delay in holding the hearings...).

Created in June 2015 and made operational in October 2018, the SCC has been the subject of much criticism for its slowness and lack of transparency, leaving many victims waiting and without concrete information on the status of proceedings. In August 2021, the President of the Court indicated that according to the latest figures, the PSC had received 237 individual complaints from victims; had 11 cases under preliminary analysis; 12 had been referred by the prosecutor to the investigating judge; and seven had been referred to national courts. A first trial is therefore a concrete development after many years of waiting.

The trial was originally scheduled to open on 19 April 2022. However, as soon as it opened, the hearing had to be postponed to 25 April 2022, due to the lack of presence of the defence lawyers. The hearing had started well with a few words from the Central African Minister of Justice... On 16 May 2022, the first hearings were finally held!

Want to know more about the SCC? Check out our article "What is the Special Criminal Court".

2. First trials are always important. Who are the suspects?

The defendants are Issa Sallet Adoum (alias Bozize), Yaouba Ousman, and Mahamat Tahir. Active members of the 3R rebel group (Return, Reclamation, and Rehabilitation), they are accused of having committed, on 21 May 2019 in Lemouna and Koundjili, a number of crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as murder, torture, and attacks on personal dignity, including humiliating and degrading treatment. Mr Issa Sallet Adoum (alias Bozize) is also accused, in his capacity as military commander, of rapes committed by his subordinates.

These crimes are part of a pattern of abuses committed by the group since it surfaced in 2015. Initially created to protect the Fula minority from anti-balaka attacks, the 3R group has in fact, over the years, been guilty of numerous crimes such as murder, looting, rape, and forced displacement against civilians.

The massacre of 21 May 2019, which is the focus of the first case before the SCC, is the first violation of the Khartoum Peace Agreement ratified on 6 February 2019 by the 14 main armed groups controlling CAR’s territory. This agreement promised peace, justice, and reconciliation.

3. What does this trial mean for the fight against impunity in CAR?

The opening of a first trial within an institution created specifically to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed in CAR is a landmark in the fight against impunity. While this trial is limited to the suspects and the alleged acts committed on 21 May 2019, it is above all the beginning, we hope, of a more functional justice system, leading to the prosecution of other perpetrators.

In a deeply unstable country like CAR, prolonged and entrenched impunity can drive the country into an almost endless climate of violence. Without justice, massive abuses against the civilian population increase, including violent attacks, summary executions, rape, sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrests, looting, and destruction of property. CAR’s territory is controlled by various armed groups who spread terror. Attempts to establish peace over the years, although numerous, have failed. There can be no peace or stability without justice.

In this context, the proceedings in the case of the massacre of civilians in Lemouna and Koundhili embody the hope of justice in action, although much remains to be done and proven.

4. Does everything hinge on this special court, or are other jurisdictions involved?

The SCC plays an important role, but it is not alone.

CAR’s "ordinary" courts also hear cases related to the conflict and have been able to compensate for the lack of prosecutions at the SCC, taking landmark decisions in recent years. Among them, on 22 January 2018, former anti-balaka warlord Rodrigue Ngaibona, known as "General Andjilo," was sentenced in the Bangui Criminal Court to life imprisonment. He was found guilty of murder, criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons and munitions of war. In February 2020, the Bangui Court of Appeal also convicted 28 former anti-balaka members for the massacre of dozens of Muslims and 10 UN peacekeepers in Bangassou in 2017.

At the international level, there are also ongoing cases before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has been [seized twice (in response to two different conflicts) by the Central African Republic to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country since 1 July 2002 (the "CAR I" situation relating to the violence of 2002 and 2003 in particular) and since 1 August 2012 (the "CAR II" situation relating to the abuses committed in the context of the conflict between the Sélékas and anti-balaka between 2013 and 2014).

To date, the ICC cases concern the two anti-balaka Mr Ngaissona and Mr Yekatom, the ex-Séléka Mr Said, whose trial will open on 26 September 2022 and Maxime Mokom, the former national coordinator of anti-balaka operations who was recently transferred to The Hague.

5. If there are several competent courts, how does this work in practice?

The question of complementarity between the ordinary courts, the SCC, and the ICC is interesting. How can we ensure that everyone does not start prosecuting the same people or, on the contrary, that each one does not pass the quid, thus promoting impunity? This is a particular issue for the SCC and the ICC, which have a similar mandate to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. We will not go into the technical details of the principle of complementarity here, but in reality it is not all that complicated.

The ICC, as a court of "last resort," is complementary to national jurisdictions. This means that the ICC will only investigate and prosecute if national authorities are unwilling or unable to do so. National authorities have primacy over any judicial action concerning their territory or their nationals. States, such as CAR, therefore retain primary responsibility for prosecuting these crimes and cannot absolve themselves of their obligations by referring the matter to the ICC. The SCC should therefore have the priority to investigate and prosecute, while leaving the ICC to deal with cases it cannot or does not wish to hear.

As far as the ordinary courts are concerned, it is equally simple. It is still the SCC that has priority over crimes within its mandate. The SCC can choose whether or not to take up a case and may refer it to the ordinary courts, which can then take over.

There are of course other factors, such as the status of the defendants, which may play a role in the allocation of cases. If you are interested in this issue, FIDH is working on an analysis of complementarity in CAR which will be published in a few months... Check back shortly if you want to learn more!

5. Why is FIDH so interested in CAR?

FIDH has been working on the situation in CAR, and in close collaboration with its member organisations in CAR, since the early 2000s, when few NGOs were present in the country or monitoring the situation. It documents the serious and massive human rights violations in Bangui and the rest of the country and calls for those responsible - from all sides of the conflict - to be brought to justice. FIDH commitment therefore quickly focused on the fight against impunity and the call for international and national justice to be activated.

Faced with the persistent lack of capacity of the Central African courts, FIDH and its members initially actively advocated for the opening of an investigation before the ICC and denounced its inertia. A first submission to the ICC was thus transmitted by FIDH in 2003 concerning the war crimes committed by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s men. We have followed the evolution of this case very closely, welcoming his arrest and then his conviction, strongly criticising his acquittal and raising the impact of such a decision on the victims who have been waiting for so long, in particular the victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Beyond this case, FIDH and its members have carried out numerous other investigations and sent a wide variety of information to the ICC, including on events in the CAR since 2013 and 2014.

More recently, FIDH and its member organisations have supported the creation of the SCC, seeking to raise awareness among the population and relevant actors on why the PSC deserves the support of civil society. Through an open letter, FIDH encouraged the international community to support this initiative, including financially, to give it a chance to exist. Since then, FIDH and its members have been waiting impatiently for the trials to begin.

The identification, support and guidance of victims, even during the peak of the successive crises in CAR, has never ceased. The courage and abnegation of the victims has often been recognised by FIDH and its members. We are working hard to ensure that the rights of victims and the guarantees of their participation are secured, both at the national and international level. To this end, FIDH and its members have supported the creation of a collective of lawyers for the fight against impunity and the representation of victims, based in Bangui.

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