The two men are charged over their roles in the ongoing Central African Republic civil war, which has killed thousands and displaced over a million people since 2012.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Two former Central African Republic militia leaders pleaded not guilty to dozens of charges of murder, torture and the destruction of religious sites at the start of their trial Tuesday before the International Criminal Court.
Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yékatom were both present in the ICC’s courtroom in The Hague, where the prosecution outlined how they plan to connect the two men to violence in the landlocked African country between 2013 and 2014.
“The crimes were so arresting in scale that they transgress the very nature of humanity,” Kweku Vanderpuye said for the prosecution.
The opening statement was expected to be given by the court’s outgoing chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, in what would be her last trial, but she was unexpectedly not present.
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 a coup by pro-Muslim groups, known as the Seleka. Ngaïssona described himself as the spokesperson of the anti-Balaka forces, Christian militias which began in opposition to the Seleka.
He 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.
“I do not recognize myself in the charges,” Ngaïssona, wearing a royal blue suit, told the court after the 16 counts of war crimes and 16 counts of crimes against humanity against him were read aloud.
Yékatom is charged with 10 counts of war crimes and 11 counts of crimes against humanity. Nicknamed “Rambo,” he was a ranking member of the CAR army before he became an anti-Balaka leader, eventually leading a pro-Christian force of 3,000 against Muslim militias and civilians.
“Muslims were seen as traitors, collaborators, foreigners,” prosecutor Vanderpuye said of the alleged crimes committed by Yékatom.
According to the prosecution, Yékatom was known for patrolling roadblocks on his red motorcycle. Wearing a dark blue suit and a red tie, he told the court: “I categorically deny the charges against me.”
Ngaissona, who went on to become the head of soccer’s governing body in Africa, was arrested in France in 2018. Yekatom was handed over to the ICC by CAR officials after he was arrested for firing a gun in parliament. Both men first appeared before the court in 2019.
Charges against the two men were initially brought separately but were joined at the request of the prosecution. Bensouda, the chief prosecutor, said that holding a joint trial would “avoid the unnecessary cost and work of having witnesses testify more than once or with managing two separate but substantially overlapping case files.”
Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, applauded the prosecution of the two Christian militia leaders.
“The opening of the Yékatom and Ngaïssona trial is a milestone for justice for victims of brutal crimes committed in the Central African Republic’s most recent conflict,” 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.
Last month, the court arrested its first Seleka commander when Mahamat Said Abdel Kani turned himself to custody.
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.
As hearings began on Tuesday, security forces were attempting to hold off an attack on the country’s capital of Bangui by militia groups, sparked by the December reelection of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Dozens have been killed in recent weeks, including several United Nations peacekeepers and a Médecins Sans Frontières aid worker.
The prosecution’s opening statements will continue Wednesday.