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Central African Republic militia leader pleads not guilty to war crimes

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani turned himself to the International Criminal Court last year to face charges over his actions after the ouster of his country's president. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A senior militia leader charged with torturing political prisoners and keeping them in a hole under his office pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

At the International Criminal Court, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani is facing seven charges of murder, torture and imprisonment for his role with the mostly Muslim Séléka militia groups during the Central African Republic’s ongoing civil war. 

The 52-year-old sat expressionless in a charcoal gray suit and light blue shirt as court staff spent half an hour reading out the charges against him. "I'm pleading not guilty to all charges and all situations," Said said in French. 

Prosecutors allege that, after Séléka groups ousted President François Bozizé in 2013, Said held a senior role at the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry, reporting directly to the minister of security. “To say they governed would be an insult to the English language,” chief prosecutor Karim Khan said in his opening statement Monday. 

Khan told The Hague-based court that Said oversaw a prison in the country’s capital Bangui. Khan showed a video of the detention compound, including a hole underneath Said’s office where he said prisoners were kept in “putrid conditions.” The prosecution team plans to have nine survivors of the facility testify. 

Anyone perceived as showing support for Bozizé was at risk for detention and torture, prosecutors say. Targets included the country’s Christian majority, but anyone who had worked for Bozizé’s government or simply lived in neighborhoods with Bozizé supporters was in danger. 

The trial marks the first time a Seleka leader has been on the docket. Last year marked the start of trials at the ICC for Alfred Yékatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, leaders of two pro-Christian militias from the Central African Republic known as anti-Balaka.  

Since it gained its independence in 1960, the former French colony has had little stability. Bozizé came to power in a coup in 2003 but almost immediately, opposing forces took up arms against him, leading to the outbreak of the Central African Republic Bush War. A series of peace agreements were signed between 2007 and 2012, but Séléka forces had captured Bangui by 2013 and Bozizé fled to neighboring Cameroon. 

Authorities in the Central African Republic handed Said over to the court in 2021. The country's President Faustin-Archange Touadéra served under Bozizé but opposed his return from exile to stand in elections in 2020. Supporters of President Touadéra, who assumed office in 2016, include the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with a poor human rights record. 

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.

“Victims have been waiting nine years for the start of this trial,” Khan said Monday. The ICC has advertised the opening of Said's trial in radio and television ads, in addition to taking out 30 billboards along roads in the country.

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