CAR: Urgent need to rebuild justice system as war crime suspects 'roam free'
‘This is impunity on a staggering scale, and it is undermining efforts to rebuild CAR and create a sustainable peace,’ Illaria Allegrozzi
The vast majority of the suspected war criminals in the Central African Republic are roaming free and in some cases living side by side with their victims, fuelling instability and leading to further abuse, said Amnesty International in a new report today (11 January).
Amnesty is calling for major investment to rebuild the country’s justice system and establish the Special Criminal Court to help bring perpetrators to account.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty’s Central Africa Researcher, said:
“Thousands of victims of human rights abuses across CAR are still waiting for justice to be served, while individuals who have committed horrific crimes like murder and rape roam free. This is impunity on a staggering scale, and it is undermining efforts to rebuild CAR and create a sustainable peace.
“The only long-term solution to this entrenched impunity is the comprehensive overhaul of CAR’s national justice system, including by rebuilding its courts, prisons and police force. In the meantime, sustainable funding for the Special Criminal Court, including robust witness protection programmes, is an essential step towards justice.”
Amnesty’s 56 page report, The long wait for justice: Accountability in Central African Republic, highlights that none of the ten individuals on the UN sanctions list for CAR appear to have been arrested or investigated, and only one of 21 individuals that Amnesty believes should be investigated for crimes under international law - including war crimes and crimes against humanity - has been arrested. Amnesty is not aware of effective investigations into the others.
Some individuals have even found themselves in positions of power, such as Anti-balaka commander Alfred Yekatom, who is a member of the National Assembly Defence and Security Commission dealing with the disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation of armed groups (DDRR) process.
The justice system in CAR, which was weak before the conflict, has been further undermined by the fighting as records were destroyed and legal personnel forced to flee. There are few functioning courts outside of the capital Bangui, and just eight out of 35 prisons in the country are functional. Detainees are kept in crumbling buildings in crowded and insanitary conditions and poor security has led to repeated prison breaks.
A member of civil society in Bangui told Amnesty:
“They [suspected perpetrators] live side by side with their victims. They take the same taxis, shop in the same shops, and live in the same neighbourhood. None have been arrested or prosecuted, and such a climate of impunity only reassures the perpetrators.”
The UN peacekeeping force in CAR has helped the national authorities arrest 384 people for crimes linked to the conflict between September 2014 and October 2016. However, this included only a handful of high-profile individuals suspected of having committed the most serious crimes, while 130 escaped from prison in September 2015.
This impunity has contributed to a rise in violence since last September, including one attack in Kaga-Bandoro in October, in which ex-Seleka fighters killed at least 37 civilians, wounded a further 60 and forced more than 20,000 people to flee their homes.
Recommendations for the Special Criminal Court
Important progress has been made in recent months in establishing the Special Criminal Court, a “hybrid” court of national and international judges and staff that will try individuals suspected of having committed crimes under international law during the conflict.
Amnesty’s report makes key recommendations to ensure that the Court is set up as rapidly as possible in a way that ensures effective investigations and fair trials.
While $5 million of the $7 million required for the first 14 months of operations has been secured, more needs to be done to ensure sustainable support for the first five years of the court’s operation. Donor countries should also help by nominating qualified judges and other legal staff during current and future recruitments.
“The Special Criminal Court is essential to ensure that victims of some of the conflict’s most serious crimes will have a chance to see justice done in CAR, and should be given every support,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi.
“It is also vital that a robust victim and witness protection programme is developed to ensure their safe participation in the proceedings. Defendants must also have the right to all safeguards ensuring a fair trial, including legal aid. It is time to put an end to the climate of fear that has enveloped CAR for too long.”
One civil society member told Amnesty that victims are afraid to speak out because “one can take you from your home and kill you”.
Amnesty’s report is based on dozens of interviews with people involved in the domestic justice sector in CAR, including magistrates and prosecutors, members and advisors to the Minister of Justice, the president of the CAR Bar Association, and lawyers.
Amnesty also interviewed victims of human rights abuses and crimes under international law.