On Jan. 22, a court in the Central African Republic convicted and sentenced a former warlord and leader of the anti-Balaka militia, Rodrigue Ngaibona, to life in prison. Human rights groups described it as a first in the war-torn nation and a “decisive first step” in delivering justice for crimes committed during the violence that has gripped the country for the past five years. In an email interview, Elise Keppler, the associate director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, and Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch focusing on the Central African Republic, discuss the conviction, the state of the country’s fledgling Special Criminal Court and the level of political will to seek justice.
On the significance of the conviction of Ngaibona, and the capacity of CAR courts to prosecute, Elise Keppler and Lewis Muge stated that Andjilo conviction by the Bangui Criminal Court marks an important moment for the Central African Republic, as he is the first person held accountable for crimes that were committed in the country after late 2012, when the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel groups launched a campaign to overthrow the central government and plunged the country into violent conflict. Andjilo was found guilty of crimes that included murder, aggravated theft and the illegal possession of arms.
This case was never going to be easy for the Central African Republic’s judiciary. Many people in the country consider the anti-Balaka militia to have been their defenders during the period of violent civil strife, and they will be chagrined that a person they consider their own has been sentenced to life in prison while the Seleka still control vast swaths of territory with impunity. During the trial, there was legitimate concern for the safety of judges and the prosecutorial team. However, the national courts have demonstrated their willingness to face the risks by following through on the prosecution and conviction of Andjilo, providing victims in the country with hope that they will witness justice being done.
The case also demonstrates the challenges the judiciary must overcome, including getting a court up and running that could handle a trial of this magnitude. This was not an easy task. Andjilo was arrested by United Nations peacekeepers in January 2015, and holding someone in pretrial detention for three years is highly problematic.
They further stated that in the past year, the Special Criminal Court has made important progress. The chief prosecutor and judges from the Central African Republic and abroad have now been appointed. While this seems like an obvious key step, it took time, especially given the context of ongoing violence and instability across the country, often in Bangui, the capital.
The court still continues to face challenges. Providing security for court staff, victims and potential witnesses is a major one. The anti-Balaka and Seleka groups continue to control large parts of the country outside Bangui, which could hamper investigations. The financial situation of the court is also challenging. The Special Criminal Court is dependent on voluntary contributions, and the lion’s share of its budget for the next five years is still without funding. Authorities from the Central African Republic need to underscore the importance of this court to their international partners, who should provide strong political and financial support for it to succeed.
Human Rights Watch has documented cases of sexual slavery and rape committed by men under Andjilo. There is a chance he could also be tried for other crimes once the Special Criminal Court gets up and running.
when asked how they would asses the current level of political will to pursue justice for grave crimes in the Central African Republic, and how it has been affected by persistent instability, Elise and Mudge affirmed that impunity has been central to the perpetuation of violence in the Central African Republic. Perpetrators of horrific crimes know they can get away with it. The government of former President Francois Bozize, who was overthrown by the Seleka, reflected this nonchalant attitude toward accountability as money for the judicial system constantly went missing. Since 2015, however, both the transitional and the current governments have affirmed their commitment to breaking the cycles of violence that plague the country and making accountability for serious crimes a priority.
A positive sign is that criminal cases have been heard in Bangui each year since 2015, covering at least some of the serious crimes committed in the country, such as murder, rape and assault. With the exception of the Andjilo case, however, none of these cases were tied to the recent conflict. The court sessions do not handle many cases, but to get them funded and organized is a challenge. It is a testament to both the government and international partners that these sessions are held at all.
More has to be accomplished in the near future, including the adoption of the Special Criminal Court’s rules of procedure and evidence, but the prosecutor is in place and developing his strategy. Nonetheless, the court is not being established in a political vacuum. Armed groups continue to seek a place at the negotiating table, and the question of amnesty still lurks in the margins of some of the negotiations to end fighting in certain areas. Thus far, officials from the Central African Republic have not yielded when it comes to giving amnesties that would cover grave crimes. But some of the same groups that are implicated in grave crimes and are demanding blanket amnesties are seeing their own men placed in high-ranking positions in the current government, which is a concern.
Amnesty deals have been made in the past in the Central African Republic, which contributed to recurrent violence. It will be crucial that amnesties extending to grave crimes remain off the table. This is consistent with international law and practice. Moreover, the citizens of the Central African Republic have made clear their desire for perpetrators to be held to account as part of the recommendations of the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation held in 2015.
The reason these groups want blanket amnesty is clear. We have talked with their leaders, and they are afraid of justice. They know that Andjilo was found guilty. They know about the Special Criminal Court and are scared that it can end the impunity they have enjoyed for so long. And they are terrified of being held accountable for their actions.