African War Crimes Suspect Faces Reckoning at Hague Criminal Court

The Central African Republic militia leader commanded forces that ousted the country’s former president in 2013.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani appears virtually before the International Criminal Court on Friday. (Photo by ICC-CPI)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — After a rocky technical start, a militia leader from the Central African Republic made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court on Friday.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani turned himself in last week to the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for commanding the predominantly Muslim rebels known as the Seleka, who overthrew the president of the Central African Republic, or CAR, in 2013. 

Originally scheduled for Thursday morning, the hearing had to be moved until Friday due to technical issues. Said appeared, wearing a wrinkled blue and white striped shirt, by video link from the Scheveningen prison in The Hague, where he is being held.

“Yes, I understand all that you have said to me,” Said answered after Judge Rosario Salvatore Aitala asked him if he understood his rights. 

During initial appearance hearings in the ICC, the identity of the suspect is confirmed, the suspect specifies which languages they understand and a date is set for a hearing to confirm the charges. 

On behalf of his client, lawyer Jean Pierre Madoukou requested that the office of the prosecutor release all evidence to the defense.

“The procedure is only beginning but the truth will come out,” Madoukou said via video link from the CAR’s capital Bangui. 

Civil war in the CAR has been ongoing since late 2012, shortly before Seleka forces ousted President François Bozizé and took control of the capital. Christian militias, known as the anti-Balaka, began to organize attacks against the Seleka in 2013. The conflict has killed more than 5,000 people and left more than 1.1 million people displaced in a country of only 5 million. 

“Said’s case is an important step, but it should be followed by other cases against Seleka leaders, some of whom are implicated in abuses still being committed today,” Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. 

Said is the first commander of the Seleka to be brought to trial in The Hague. A trial is set to start in February for Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, two men from an anti-Balaka militia. They are accused of murder and torture during their opposition to the Seleka. 

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda pledged to hold all the defendants accountable.

“My office will relentlessly pursue justice for the victims of atrocities in the Central African Republic … irrespective of which side of the conflict they may be on,” she said in a statement.

Opened in 2014, this is the ICC’s second investigation into crimes in the former French colony. The court had previously looked into events that took place before 2012, ultimately convicting the vice president of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The former military commander was accused of being responsible for murder, rape and pillaging by his troops in the CAR when his forces were asked to put down a coup attempt. 

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s landmark conviction, the first time the court focused on the use of sexual violence during war, was overturned on appeal in 2018 as a result of legal errors. He was later convicted of witness tampering. 

Friday’s hearing took place a week after the CAR declared a 15-day state of emergency. Armed groups that control about two-thirds of the territory in the country are attempting to blockade Bangui in an attempt to oust President Faustin Archange Touadera, whose reelection was certified earlier this month. 

The Hague-based ICC scheduled an October hearing to confirm Said’s charges.

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