War crimes trial of two ex-militia leaders starts

Central African Republic's football federation chief Patrice Edouard Ngaissona attends the 40th CAF ordinary general assembly in the Moroccan city of Casablanca on February 2, 2018
Patrice Edouard Ngaissona described himself as the political co-ordinator of the anti-Balaka

The former head of the Central African Republic (CAR) football federation is set to go on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, who led a mainly Christian anti-Balaka group, also faces crimes against humanity charges, which he denies.

He and Alfred Yekatom are accused of coordinating attacks against the country’s Muslim population in 2013-14. Violence continues to grip CAR, two-thirds of which is in rebel hands. The former French colony was plunged into turmoil in 2013 when predominately Muslim rebels from the Seleka group seized power in the majority Christian country. A band of mostly Christian militias, called the anti-Balaka, rose up to counter Seleka after then President François Bozizé was ousted. Thousands were killed in subsequent clashes and the United Nations (UN) says more than a million people were forced to flee their homes.

He was the self-declared political co-ordinator of anti-Balaka forces. In this role, the ICC says, he committed war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers. Mr Ngaïssona was barred from running for CAR president in 2015 because of his alleged role in the atrocities, which he denies. He is a former head of the CAR’s football federation and briefly served as sports minister before being elected to the Confederation of African Football (Caf) in February 2018.

Young anti-Balaka fighters
The ICC accuses Mr Ngaïssona of using young fighters in the conflict

His appointment was criticised by several human rights groups. “If the allegations were true, I wouldn’t be here today,” he told AFP news agency at the time. “I don’t mix politics and sport – everything I’ve done has been for the good of my country,” he added. French authorities arrested him in December 2018 and transferred him to the ICC the January 2019. Nicknamed Rambo, the ICC alleges Mr Yekatom was responsible for murder, torture, attacking civilians and using child fighters as a former militia leader of the anti-Balaka group. He denies the allegations.

Mr Yekatom was elected as an MP in 2016, despite being subject to UN sanctions. He was arrested in October 2018 after he fired a gun in parliament, then ran away, after a row with a fellow MP. His extradition to the ICC was the first from the CAR. The International Federation for Human Rights (known by its French acronym FIDH) said it signalled the authorities there were committed to fighting impunity.

Soldiers arresting Alfred Yekatom
Mr Yekatom (C) was arrested last month by members of the armed services

Former President Bozizé, who returned from exile in 2019, is accused of being behind the latest crisis in the mineral-rich country after the constitutional court blocked him from running in the December election. A coalition of rebels reportedly allied to him have taken vast swathes of the country and have been threatening to enter the capital Bangui. Mr Bozizé has denied he has links with the fighters, who have have refused to accept President Faustin-Archange Touadéra won an election they boycotted. They want a rerun.

At least 12,000 UN peacekeepers backed by Rwandan, Russian and French soldiers are supporting government forces but their presence hasn’t stopped thousands of civilians from fleeing the country. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in January about 92,000 refugees had fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and more than 13,000 had crossed into Cameroon, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville. It said the rest were displaced within the CAR.

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