Central African Militia Leader On Trial At The Hague

On Monday September 26th, the International Criminal Court opened the trial of Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, a former militia commander from the Central African Republic (CAR). Said is the third of four individuals to be handed over to the ICC from CAR for war crimes and crimes against humanity, all of which were committed during political violence which overwhelmed the country in 2013/14. On Monday the charges were read against Said: an alleged former commander of the Séléka coalition which seized power in 2013, he is charged with crimes relating to the detainment of political enemies, including persecution, torture and outrages upon human dignity. Said has pleaded not guilty. The Court will now hear evidence from the prosecution, including the testimonies of victims, and Said, if found guilty, may face life imprisonment. 

In Bangui, victims and their representatives attended a screening of the first day of proceedings hosted by the ICC’s national equivalent, the Special Criminal Court (SCC). Mike Cole, ICC representative in CAR, said that the screening was putting victims “at the heart of the issue.” A national news network also praised the ICC proceedings, stating that the country “is participating in a true movement for justice… for the victims.” However, others are more critical of the Court, with some online commentators asking why only a handful of the dozens of militia leaders are on trial, and why only a few victims are able to testify. The court itself quoted Central African victims saying that “to have equitable justice, every daughter and son of the country must contribute.” 

There is a difficult trade-off when it comes to the number of war criminals who should be tried at the international level, as arresting and punishing leaders of former armed groups makes it difficult to negotiate peace agreements with active militia. From a more cynical viewpoint, individuals must be handed over to the ICC by the national government: this means that ICC cases can be used to serve the interests of current leaders. It is no coincidence that Said was handed over to the courts immediately after current President Touadéra had faced renewed attacks on the capital. However, the fundamental goal of eliminating impunity is to provide a deterrent against the most grievous crimes committed against those caught up in conflict. With war still occurring in CAR, the successful prosecution of even a small number of war criminals may deter current militias from committing the same acts. 

While CAR has seen waves of political unrest since independence from the French Empire, the period during which Said was allegedly in command, from 2013-14, was particularly extreme. The overthrow of President Francois Bozizé in 2013 was followed by a political struggle between two coalitions of militia: the Séléka and the anti-Balaka. Sub-groups of the Séléka and anti-Balaka remain active across the country, and in late 2020 a new coalition, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), attempted to overthrow President Touadéra. In response, Touadéra’s government has turned to bilateral allies to reinforce the national army. According to the UN office for Human Rights, war crimes, including arbitrary detention and torture continue to be committed by the CPC, the national army and international security forces.

Clearly, there is a need to stop the brutal crimes which are currently being perpetrated without accountability in CAR. The question is, in a conflict with so many parties at war, will a small number of ICC prosecutions contribute to ending impunity and protecting Central Africans from war crimes? According to Rochefort Danguene, a Central African law graduate, the International Court is part of the solution: but only if it collaborates with the national-level justice process. Rochefort highlights the work of the SCC, a hybrid court of international and national judges, which is based in Bangui. In a country where internet access is non-existent in large swathes of the territory and few citizens have the opportunity to leave, a court that meets inside CAR holds far more legitimacy as a provider of communal, equitable justice. Rochefort is not convinced that the ICC is capable of influencing Central African war politics. He says “if the ICC leans on the courts in CAR, I would say that it can contribute something to the return of peace.”

Sarah McArthur