THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – A preliminary hearing began Thursday in the International Criminal Court to determine if there is enough evidence to hold a trial against two former African officials accused of leading Christian militia members and directing attacks on Muslim civilians.
Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona appeared before a three-judge panel at the ICC, a United Nations court, in relation to the conflict in the Central African Republic, or CAR.
Yekatom and Ngaissona are both charged with murder, torture and the use of child soldiers, among other crimes. Thursday’s proceeding began the confirmation of charges hearings for the court to decide whether to hold a trial.
The landlocked central African country has experienced instability and violence since it declared independence from France in 1960. In 2012, an insurgency led by a coalition of primarily Muslim militias called the Seleka – which means “alliance” in the Sango language – led to widespread violence.
Following a Seleka-led coup in 2013, anti-Balaka – “invincible” in Sango – groups proliferated, as mostly Christian militias committed reprisal violence.
Yekatom and Ngaissona are both charged with crimes that occurred between 2013 and 2014 as alleged leaders of anti-Balaka groups who attacked Seleka members as well as Muslim civilians.
Thursday’s hearing opened with a nearly half hour introduction of parties before a full courtroom. Both men have separate defense teams and there are legal teams present to represent various victims groups. The rest of the morning was taken up with procedural arguments.
Lawyer Mylene Dimitri, representing Yekatom, complained that the prosecution hadn’t allowed the defense teams enough time to prepare and withheld evidence that could benefit her client. This is a common complaint of defense attorneys at the ICC, as there are broad allowances for secrecy to prevent retribution against witnesses.
Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops, lead defense lawyer for Ngaissona, echoed a number of Dimitri’s sentiments.
Following the discussion of procedural issues, the prosecution began outlining their case against the men in the hopes that the court will go forward with a trial.
According to Kweku Vanderpuye, senior ICC prosecutor, Yekatom ordered his men to engage in violence against civilians, including sexual assault. One victim reportedly told the militia members she “would rather be killed” as she was raped repeatedly.
Vanderpuye’s opening statements focused on the actions Yekatom either undertook himself or ordered his men to carry out.
Yekatom appeared happy while in court, smiling for a camera while wearing a royal blue suit, reminiscent of a Mao suit, characterized by a square silhouette and a high collar, which was popular with the late Chinese communist leader.
Yekatom was elected a member of parliament in the CAR after leading a Christian militia. He was arrested by CAR officials and handed over to the ICC after firing shots into the ceiling during a parliamentary debate in 2018.
Moving onto evidence against Ngaissona, Vanderpuye painted a picture of a man who used his position as the country’s minister of youth, sports, art and culture to indoctrinate and recruit young boys into anti-Balaka forces. The prosecutor focused on the management Ngaissona provided to various militias.
Ngaissona was the self-described coordinator of the anti-Balaka forces during the conflict that left tens of thousands dead and nearly 1 million people displaced. He went on to become a committee member of the Confederation of African Football and was arrested in Paris while traveling to a house he owned there.
He was somber as Vanderpuye showed the court militia ID cards with his signature.
Charges had been brought individually against the two men but were joined at the request of the ICC’s head prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who said holding a joint trial will “avoid the unnecessary cost and work of having witnesses testify more than once or with managing two separate but substantially overlapping case files.”
The pretrial hearings will continue through next week.
This is the second case investigated by the ICC related to the CAR. The court also looked into filing charges stemming from an earlier conflict that began in 2003, which resulted in a case against former Congolese president Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Bemba was charged with crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, or MLC. The MLC was asked by CAR’s then-President Ange-Felix Patasse to assist against an attempted coup in 2003. While in the CAR, MLC allegedly raped, murdered and tortured civilians.