An alleged former rebel commander in the Central African Republic (CAR) pleaded not guilty to a list of charges at the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on Monday.
Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, purportedly a senior figure in the Seleka rebel coalition, stands accused of overseeing detention and torture during a wave of sectarian violence in the country following the ousting of President Francois Bozize in March 2013.
Dressed in a grey suit and tie, Said rejected all seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes — including imprisonment, torture, persecution and outrages on personal dignity — allegedly perpetrated against perceived Bozize supporters detained in Bangui.
"I have listened to everything, and I am pleading not guilty," Said told the judges.
At the time of Said's alleged crimes, CAR was ruled by Michel Djotodia — who seized power from Bozize — backed by the mainly Muslim Seleka, a coalition of militias.
In the months that followed, the capital, Bangui, was gripped by fighting between the predominately Muslim Seleka combatants and those from principally Christian forces in a grouping known as the Anti-balaka. The latter wished to reinstall Bozize, who himself had seized power in 2003. Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced, according to the ICC.
Said's alleged crimes 'quite awful'
In an opening statement, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan alleged that Said had been directly in charge of a detention facility with dozens of Seleka reporting to him. In his role, Said had "actively participated" in hunting down people from certain ethnic groups or neighborhoods and subjecting them "to the most dire conditions that he could conjure up," Khan said.
According to the prosecutor, people were even kept under Said's feet in a cramped, feces-strewn, rat-infested underground space known as "the hole." Detainees were subjected to torture, with their hands, elbows and legs bound behind their back, and beaten with gun butts and whips, Khan alleged.
All of this was "part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population" during 10 months of Seleka rule, he said.
The effect on civilians of power struggles like the one between the Seleka and Anti-Balaka is "the tragedy of so many countries — and it is certainly the tragedy of the Central African Republic," Khan told the court.
Said was surrendered to the ICC by CAR authorities in January 2021.
If found guilty, the 52-year-old Said faces up to 30 years imprisonment or potentially even a life sentence, ICC spokesperson Fadi El Abdallah told DW in an email. Said is being held at a detention facility in the Hague, El Abdallah said.
Khan told the judges that Said had a right to enter a not guilty plea, but that he had "no place to hide" before the law.
"The charges that are faced are really quite awful," he said. "His voice determined the fates of so many individuals."
Sarah Pellet, the legal representative for the victims in the case, told DW that trials like the one that opened Monday were important for victims to tell their story, albeit anonymously.
"After 10 years, they still need to obtain explanations on why they were victimized," she said, "and the trial hopefully will bring that."
“The way the prosecution presented its evidence is very far removed from the reality in the Central African Republic,” Said’s defence lawyer, Jennifer Naouri, told DW on the phone. “What we saw today wasn’t the truth, but a very biased vision.” Said’s defence team is set to make its opening statements on Tuesday.
Conflict figures face justice
A handful of figures from both sides of the conflict now face international prosecution at the Hague and in CAR.
Alongside Said, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, Alfred Yekatom and Maxime Gawaka are also in the midst of proceedings at the ICC — all alleged Anti-balaka. A fifth arrest warrant has been issued for Mahamat Nouradine Adam, a minister under Djotodia, who remains at large. Said is the first senior Seleka figure to come before the ICC.
The CAR has a small population of 5 million spread out over a large territory. It is home to significant deposits of valuable natural resources, including diamonds, uranium and gold. However, the country remains plagued by extreme poverty, fuelled by weak public institutions and endemic corruption.
Enrica Picco, a CAR expert from the nongovernmental organization Crisis Group, told DW that these difficulties harked back to the legacy of violent French colonial rule.
"All this is also a result of the violence that was linked with French colonization and the fact that ... at the time of the country's independence [in 1960], there were no structures capable of managing the state," the analyst said.
Today, approximately 1 million people in CAR are displaced, and two-thirds of the population are dependent on humanitarian assistance.
Cycle of violence remains unbroken
Despite a number of peace agreements, violence involving armed groups continues in CAR. The majority of tensions can be traced back to identity: The country is majority Christian with a Muslim minority, with more than 80 ethnic groups.
These tensions have been further compounded by decades of violence that forced people to group together for their own defense.
"Insecurity and instability is still widespread all around the country," Picco said.
"Armed groups have been disbanded, but [they] still extort and harass the local population."
Whatever the outcome of the trials in the Hague, Picco said it likely wouldn't affect much on the ground.
"In terms of need, in terms of reparations, in terms of expectations for the future of the country," Picco said, "nothing has substantially changed."
Numerous international interventions have failed to bring lasting stability. French forces intervened in CAR in late 2013, but three years later pulled out. The legacy of that peacekeeping mission was tainted with repeated allegations of sexual violence.
Current President Faustin-Archange Touadera has grown increasingly close to Russia, which together with Rwanda and the UN helped the government fend off a rebel offensive on Bangui last year.
The United States and the European Union are concerned about presence of the private mercenary Wagner group in CAR. According to a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year, fighters identified by witnesses as Russian, “appear to have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians since 2019.”
Edited by: Ineke Mules
This article was updated with a quote by Said’s defence lawyer, Jennifer Naouri.