Q&A Central African Republic: First ICC Anti-Balaka Trial

Published by HRW on February 7, 2021.

Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. (2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch)

The opening of the trial of Alfred Yékatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona will take place on February 16, 2021 at the International Criminal Court after being postponed from February 9 due to unexpected Covid-related circumstances. Ngaïssona and Yékatom are the highest ranking anti-balaka leaders to face trial, and the first at the ICC. The anti-balaka are Christian militias who engaged in brutal tit-for-tat attacks with the Muslim Seleka following a coup in 2012, leaving civilians caught in the middle. Although the International Criminal Court is conducting two investigations concerning crimes committed in the Central African Republic in the last two decades, this is the first trial of anti-balaka leaders and involving crimes in the country’s conflict since 2012.

1. What is the background in the Central African Republic to these cases?

In late 2012, mainly Muslim Seleka rebels began a rebellion that ousted the Central African Republic president, François Bozizé, and seized power through a campaign of violence and terror. In late 2013, Christian and animist militias known as anti-balaka began to organize counterattacks against the Seleka. The anti-balaka had its roots as local self-defense groups that existed under Bozizé and frequently targeted Muslim civilians, associating all Muslims with the Seleka.

As the Seleka and anti-balaka fought each other and carried out increasingly brutal tit-for-tat attacks on those they perceived as supporting their enemies, civilians were caught in the middle. Many Muslims fled, and with the mass departure of the country’s minority Muslim population, the anti-balaka turned on Christians and others who they believed had opposed them or had sided with their Muslim neighbors. Over time, the anti-balaka turned on anyone they came across, stealing and looting. There was widespread internal displacement across the country, which continues.

Human Rights Watch has documented war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Seleka and anti-balaka forces since 2013. Some of the most egregious abuses occurred in the central regions of the Central African Republic between late 2014 and April 2017. Human Rights Watch has also documented hundreds of cases of rape and sexual slavery by anti-balaka groups and fighters from Seleka factions.

2. How did the ICC become involved in the Central African Republic?

On May 30, 2014, then-interim president Catherine Samba-Panza referred the situation in the Central African Republic since August 2012 to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. On September 24, 2014, the prosecutor announced the opening of an investigation into crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic since 2012.

This was the second ICC investigation into alleged crimes in the Central African Republic. The ICC’s first investigation related to grave crimes committed in 2002 and 2003 during a coup led by Bozizé. In December 2004, the Central African Republic referred that situation to the ICC, and the ICC prosecutor announced the opening of a formal investigation into the situation in 2007.

3. Who are Alfred Yékatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona?

Alfred Yékatom, known as “Rombhot,” was born on January 23, 1975. He was a master corporal in the national army before the conflict and then promoted himself to “colonel” when he became a key anti-balaka leader in 2013. He allegedly commanded a group of about 3,000 members operating within the anti-balaka movement, according to the ICC. On August 20, 2015, Yékatom was added to the United Nations Security Council sanctions list for taking action that was deemed to threaten or impede the political transition process or fuel violence. In 2016, Yékatom was elected to parliament.

Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona is a one-time self-declared political coordinator of the anti-balaka militias and, according to the ICC, an “alleged most senior leader” of the anti-balaka. On February 2, 2018, he was elected to a senior post at the Confederation of African Football. Human Rights Watch interviewed Ngaïssona on September 3, 2014, during which he did not contest that the anti-balaka were responsible for some abuses or that he was a leader of the anti-balaka.

4. When did Yékatom and Ngaïssona first face ICC charges and appear at the ICC?

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Yékatom on November 11, 2018, which it unsealed on November 17, 2018. Yékatom was transferred to the ICC by Central African Republic authorities on November 17, 2018. The authorities in the Central African Republic took Yékatom, who was then a member of parliament, into custody after he took out a gun and fired shots in the parliament building. He made his first appearance before the ICC a few days later.

Less than a month later, on December 7, 2018, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Ngaïssona. Ngaïssona was arrested in France on December 12, 2018 and transferred to the ICC on January 23, 2019. His initial appearance took place two days later.

5. What are the charges against Yékatom and Ngaïssona?

Yékatom faces 10 counts of war crimes and 11 counts of crimes against humanity and Ngaïssona faces 16 counts of war crimes and 16 counts of crimes against humanity. The charges include intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population, murder, intentionally directing attacks on religious sites, deportation or forcible transfer of population and displacement of the civilian population, and persecution. Both were also charged with the war crime of enlisting children under age 15 and using them in hostilities.

When confirming these charges to go ahead to trial, the ICC judges denied certain charges that the prosecutor had sought relating to events in certain locations outside Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital. The judges said that the evidence did not establish that Ngaïssona had effective control of certain anti-balaka groups operating outside Bangui.

Victims initially raised a concern that the prosecutor might not include rape and sexual violence charges as distinct offenses. The charges ultimately did include rape, both as a war crime and a crime against humanity, although only against Ngaïssona. The prosecutor later sought to add a second instance of rape to Ngaïssona’s charges and to add charges of rape and sexual slavery against Yékatom. The court denied the requests, however, citing among other reasons the need to balance the effectiveness of the prosecution with potential prejudice to the defendants given the late timing.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented rape and sexual slavery by anti-balaka forces, including by forces allegedly under Yékatom’s command.

6. Why is the ICC trying Yékatom and Ngaïssona together?

In February 2019, the ICC judges joined the Yékatom and Ngaïssona cases. They noted that the crimes were part of the same overall attack and the same conflict. As a result, the judges said, they expected that the evidence against both suspects would be substantially the same. The judges also found that joining the cases would not prejudice the defendants, and would rather enhance the fairness and expeditiousness of the proceedings. In joint proceedings, each suspect is accorded the same rights as if they were being tried separately.