First Witness Called in War Crimes Trial of African Militia Leaders

The trial against two former Central African Republic officials charged with dozens of counts of murder, torture and the destruction of religious sites is expected to take several years before a final judgment is delivered.

Judges of the International Criminal Court hold a hearing in the case against Central African Republic war crimes suspects Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona in The Hague, Netherlands, last month. (Photo by ICC-CPI)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Witness testimony in the case against pro-Christian militia leaders Alfred Yékatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona kicked off before the International Criminal Court on Monday. 

The Hague-based court for atrocity crimes heard from a woman, whose identity was protected, about her recollection of an attack against Muslims by so-called anti-Balaka forces in the southern Central African Republic town of Bangui in 2013. 

“There were people with broken arms, they were covered in blood,” she said while describing the aftermath of the attack, in which her husband, who owned a shop in the city’s market, was killed. Her testimony was slow going as she spoke a local language, Sango, which had to be translated into French and then into English. 

According to the prosecution, a group led by Yékatom used grenades, machetes and guns to attack Muslim traders at a market, killing around a dozen people. The group then destroyed the city’s mosque and burned houses belonging to Muslims, forcing civilians to flee.

“The Christian women at the market told us: ‘You are going to leave us very soon, you are going to leave the country very soon. We are no longer going to see you,’” the woman said she was told ahead of the attack. Much of her testimony was held in a private session, only available to court staff and the defense, as she revealed the names and descriptions of people involved.

Yékatom, who watched passively while the witness testified via video link, is charged with 10 counts of war crimes and 11 counts of crimes against humanity for leading pro-Christian militia forces known as the anti-Balaka.

His co-defendant, Ngaïssona, is charged with 16 counts of war crimes and 16 counts of crimes against humanity for allegedly using his position as the country’s minister of youth, sports, art and culture to recruit child soldiers and incite hatred against Muslims. 

Both men pleaded not guilty to all charges, which focus on events between 2013 and 2014, when the trial opened last month. 

Civil war in the Central African Republic, or CAR, has been ongoing since late 2012, shortly before Seleka forces ousted President François Bozizé and took control of the capital. Christian militias began to organize attacks against primarily Muslim militias called the Seleka in 2013. Last month, the ICC arrested its first Seleka commander when Mahamat Said Abdel Kani turned himself in. 

This is the ICC’s second investigation into crimes in the former French colony. The court previously looked into events that took place before 2012, ultimately convicting Jean-Pierre Bemba, the vice president of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, for ordering his forces to rape and murder civilians in the CAR.  

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.

Violence has broken out in the CAR yet again, following parliamentary elections on Sunday. The conflict has killed more than 5,000 people and left more than 1.1 million displaced in a country of only 5 million. 

The trial will continue Tuesday. It is expected to take several years to complete after appeals are filed.

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