Central African Republic’s Special Criminal Court, a hybrid court of local and foreign magistrates charged with trying war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since 2003, opens its first trial Tuesday, seven years after its formation.
In CAR, the rule of law is threadbare, eroded by decades of civil wars, the last of which began nine years ago and is ongoing. With some two-thirds of the country in militia hands as recently as a year ago, the tribunal has had to overcome a litany of obstacles.
Nothing can be taken for granted for the court which is struggling to assert its authority against executive power.
President Faustin Archange Touadera is accused by the UN, EU and France of cosying up to Moscow and the Russian private security company Wagner, and of exploiting his country’s vast mineral wealth in exchange for its protection against rebels.
While the court has been praised by some as a model of justice prime for exportation to other countries blighted by civil war, others doubt its actual effectiveness.
The chief criticism is that it has been slow in opening its first trial of three alleged war criminals.
The court was created in 2015 with the backing of the United Nations and is made up of national and international judges and prosecutors from France, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On Tuesday it will hear its first trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in May 2019.
The defendants are members of one of the most powerful armed groups that have terrorised the population for years, the 3R.
They are accused of massacring 46 civilians in villages in the northwest of the country.
The trial, which has not been publicised by the government despite international NGOs and foreign jurists hailing it as “historic”, comes exactly five months after officers from the SCC arrested former rebel chief Hassan Bouba at his ministry in Bangui.
Plagued by challenges
The Sentry, a US-based NGO that monitors money laundering, said Bouba was directly responsible for an attack on a camp for displaced people in November 2018 that left at least 112 villagers dead, including 19 children.
Days later, he was freed by gendarmes before returning to his ministry, a stone’s throw from the court – and was even decorated by the head of state with the National Order of Merit.
“The SCC is facing obstacles put in place by the authorities, perfectly illustrated by the Hassan Bouba affair,” said Nicolas Tiangaye, a lawyer and spokesman for the opposition Coalition of 2020, which groups almost all the unarmed opposition parties.
Critics say the SCC cannot even count on the support of the 14 000 UN peacekeepers in the country (MINUSCA), despite the fact that the UN is the main donor.
The CSS has an annual budget of $13 million, mainly from the UN, the EU and the US.
“The judges’ decisions must be applied by other entities. There are at least 25 arrest warrants, but neither MINUSCA nor the CAR authorities execute them even though that is part of their mandate,” said Alice Banens, legal advisor for Amnesty International.
“The real question now is whether our warrants, including those for big fish, will be carried out,” said Michel Landry Louanga, president of the SCC.
The court has also been plagued by logistical challenges that have not helped its standing – the last two foreign judges took up their posts in February and “key positions at the SCC remained vacant and difficult to fill,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
“The situation of the court is special, it is a functioning court while there are still clashes and our detractors forget that,” Louanga said.
“Despite everything, we manage to set up war crimes proceedings and that doesn’t happen anywhere else, there are no comparisons in the world.”