UN Court Wraps Pretrial Hearing for African War Crimes Suspects

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – A preliminary hearing for two former African officials accused of human rights violations came to a close Friday, and judges on the International Criminal Court must now decide if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial.

Alfred Yekatom appears before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Nov. 23, 2018. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Pool via AP, File)

Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona of the Central African Republic are facing charges of murder, torture and the use of child soldiers, among other crimes, before the ICC, the United Nation’s judicial body for atrocity crimes.

The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, returned to give a closing statement Friday. She had so far not been present during the month-long hearing for unspecified reasons.

“It is imperative that we do not allow perpetrators of serious crimes to escape accountability for their actions,” she said.

The Hague-based ICC is a global court created in 2002 by the Rome Statute to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yekatom and Ngaissona are facing charges stemming from incidents during 2013 and 2014, when their landlocked central African country was experiencing a civil war. The men are accused of involvement with anti-Balaka forces, Christian militias which formed to combat pro-Muslim groups known as the Seleka. Seleka forces overthrew the government of the former French colony in a coup.

The confirmation of charges hearing, which examines if there is sufficient evidence to move forward with a trial, began on Sept. 19. It was originally scheduled to last until Sept. 27, but, following the closing arguments from the defense, presiding Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua announced a delay. Rather than the three-judge panel posing questions, they wanted a written submission from the prosecution and postponed closing statements until Friday.

Following Bensouda’s statement, representatives from the victims spoke. The 1,096 registered victims are not present at the trial, but their voices are heard through legal counsel.

“The violence inflicted upon the victims has had lasting effects,” said Elisabeth Rabesandratana, one of the representatives.

Mylène Dimitri, lead defense counsel for Yekatom, then showed a number of video clips of Muslim forces engaging in violence against Christian civilians. During the hearings, she has focused on the crimes committed by the Seleka, arguing that both sides were guilty of atrocities and it’s unfair to only punish one.

She also claimed that evidence has been kept from the defense, a complaint she had made previously, before asking the court to dismiss all charges.

During her opening statement, prosecutor Bensouda told the court that she was not favoring one side over the other.

“This case will not be the last one from the situation in the CAR. I am investigating all sides in the conflict,” she said during her closing statement.

Dimitri’s presentations have been substantially briefer throughout the hearings than those made by Geert-Jan Knoops, the lead counsel for Ngaissona. Ngaissona is also facing more charges, 111 compared to the 29 faced by Yekatom.

Knoops was present in the courtroom Friday, despite prosecutors delivering closing statements in another case he is a part of. The lawyer is also representing the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders, who is facing charges of inciting racial hatred.

Knoops reiterated his defense that Ngaissona did not commit the crimes that he was accused of and that he was “merely helping the community in everyday life.” Knoops had also previously claimed his client was too scared to have acted in a violent manner.

Knoops, who gave the final presentation of the day, was chastised by the ICC judges for going over his allotted time by eight minutes.

The judges have 60 days to assess the evidence and determine if the case will move forward.

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