African War Crimes Suspect Denies Charges in UN Court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – The defense team for one of two former Central African Republic officials accused of crimes against humanity began presenting their case Monday during a preliminary hearing before the International Criminal Court, arguing there is not sufficient evidence to hold a trial.

Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona stands during his initial appearance before the judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP, File)

Both Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona were present in the crowded courtroom of the ICC, the United Nation’s judicial body for atrocity crimes, as Ngaissona’s attorney told the judges he wasn’t capable of the acts he is accused of.

The hearing began last Thursday with statements from the prosecution, depicting both men as deeply involved in murder, torture and the use of child soldiers during the central African country’s civil war in 2012.

This case is referred to by the court as CAR2, as the ICC has also investigated crimes stemming from the conflict in the country from 2002 to 2003. The only conviction from CAR1 was of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Congolese president who led a cross-border militia, but that conviction was overturned on appeal.

Prosecutors wrapped up their opening statements on Friday. According to Kweku Vanderpuye, the senior ICC prosecutor, Yekatom led an armed Christian militia which attacked and killed Muslim civilians, while Ngaissona, who was the country’s minister of youth, sports, art and culture, used his position to recruit child soldiers and to incite hatred against Muslims.

In 2012, the CAR government fell, in a coup, to a group of primarily Muslim militias called the Seleka. Christian armed groups, known as the anti-Balaka, formed in reaction and Yekatom and Ngaissona are accused of helping to lead the reactionary forces.

Following the prosecutor, the court heard from several representatives from the victims. The 1,096 identified victims in the case do not appear themselves before the court. Instead, they are represented by several common legal representatives, who may represent various sub-groups of victims. For example, the 93 child soldiers have a particular representative.

In total, five representatives presented evidence of the alleged war crimes over two days. Abdou Dangabo Moussa spoke passionately about refugees he met in the neighboring country of Chad. He said the victims he met were exhausted, thirsty, weak and expressed the desire to go home.

On Monday afternoon, the hearing moved on to the defense. Mylène Dimitri spoke briefly on behalf of her client, Yekatom, who later waived his right to be present to see a doctor for an unspecified medical condition.

Dimitri focused her defense on criticizing the prosecutor for allegedly withholding information and complained that there was no victim testimony so the court was “unable to determine the veracity of the victims’ claims.”

She then attempted to give the remainder of her time to Ngaïssona’s defense, which was denied by the three-judge panel.

Ngaissona’s own lawyer, Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops, painted his client as an “incompetent leader” who was afraid of the Seleka and unable to order the acts with which he is charged.

Knoops was missing for part of the morning session on Monday, as another one of his clients, the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, was appearing before another court on charges of inciting racial hatred. Knoops’ wife, Carry Knoops, who is also a lawyer, filled in for him.

Knoops too complained about the evidence and claimed that most of the anti-Balaka groups were disorganized and dispersed, not the fighting force the prosecution claimed. The prosecution “distorted reality of the conflict in the CAR,” Knoops said.

The Ngaissona defense will resume Tuesday.

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