Hague Criminal Court Wraps Opening Arguments in Trial of Ex-Militia Leaders

The trial of two Christian militants from the Central African Republic will resume next month but it could take years before a final judgment is handed down.

Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, a former Central African Republic militia leader, enters the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday for the start of his war-crimes trial. (Photo by ICC-CPI)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The defense had the last word Thursday at the International Criminal Court on behalf of two former Christian militia leaders who together have been charged with more than 50 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Opening statements before the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes began on Tuesday in the trial of Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yékatom, who are facing charges of murder and torture for allegedly ordering the killing of Muslim civilians and recruiting child soldiers during the Central African Republic’s ongoing civil war.

Ngaïssona’s lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, argued that his client was incapable of committing the 32 crimes he’s been charged with.

“Mr. Ngaïssona played no role, no role, in the commission of any crime,” the Dutch lawyer told The Hague-based ICC. His masked client looked on with arms crossed for most of Thursday’s hearing, wearing his typical royal blue suit. 

According to the prosecution, Ngaïssona, a wealthy businessman, was part of the inner circle of ex-CAR President François Bozizé, who was ousted from power in early 2013 in a coup by pro-Muslim groups, known as the Seleka. Ngaïssona would eventually serve as the country’s minister of youth, sports, art and culture, and is accused of using his position to recruit child soldiers and to incite hatred against Muslims. 

The week opened with presentations from the prosecution before statements from lawyers on behalf of the victims Wednesday. Dmytro Suprun, one of the victims’ representatives, described the hardships they have faced.

“Of the 59 former child soldiers [involved in the trial], seven have been sexually abused, 12 have injuries, 35 suffer from various forms of psychological trauma and behavioral disorders. They are all stigmatized or even rejected by their communities,” Suprun told the ICC judges on Wednesday.   

Former Central African Republic militia leader Alfred Yekatom appears at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday for the start of his war-crimes trial. (Photo by ICC-CPI)

Nicknamed “Rambo,” Ngaïssona’s co-defendant Yékatom is accused of leading a group of some 3,000 in attacks against Muslim civilians. He faces 21 total counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both men were leaders of the anti-Balaka forces, Christian militias which began in opposition to the Seleka.

“Rambo, he wanted to take every village,” said victims’ lawyer Claire Henderson, reading from a witness statement. She described how the former CAR army officer was known for riding on a red motorcycle to visit checkpoints guarded by his men.

Yékatom’s defense team plans to make its opening statement at the start of the presentation of evidence in March. 

Charges against the two men were initially brought separately but were joined at the request of the prosecution, which said a joint trial would make it easier for witnesses to testify. Both men have pleaded not guilty

In Ngaïssona’s case, the defense intends to argue that he was not involved in military operations but rather wanted to use his position to bring peace to the country.

“He wanted to use football to bring back peace,” Knoops said Thursday.

The defense attorney also said that Ngaïssona’s membership on the executive committee for the Confederation of African Football, soccer’s governing body in Africa, showed his client’s integrity. 

“Mr. Ngaïssona’s most favorite player of the CAR’s football team was a player of Muslim descent,” Knoops said, denying that his client hated Muslims.

On Wednesday, another lawyer for the victims, Paolina Massidda, presenting from CAR’s capital Bangui, described the destruction of mosques in the city.

“In Bangui, of the capital’s 23 mosques, only four remain standing. The other mosques were attacked, burned down, dismantled or destroyed,” she said, adding that some were paved over and used as basketball courts. 

The trial, which could take several years to complete after appeals are filed, will resume on March 15 when the prosecution will begin to present its evidence. 

As the week’s hearings were underway, CAR security forces were attempting to hold off an attack on Bangui by militia groups. Civil war in the CAR has been ongoing since late 2012, shortly before Seleka forces ousted President Bozizé and took control of the capital. 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.

The court arrested its first Seleka commander last month when Mahamat Said Abdel Kani surrendered himself to ICC custody. 

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