After seven years of waiting for the UN-backed Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic (CAR) to begin operations, victims of the country’s civil war had hoped to finally see the first tangible step toward justice on April 25 when the first trial opened in the capital Bangui. The trial was initially set to begin on April 19, 2022, but was abruptly postponed when the defense attorneys failed to show up in an apparent boycott over their wages. After a settlement on wages was reached, the defense lawyers returned to court on April 25, but then immediately requested an adjournment, which they were granted, and the trial was postponed again until May 16. It is very likely that this incessant postponement will further deflate already diminished confidence among victims in the SCC’s ability to deliver justice.
For over a decade, CAR has been embroiled in successive conflicts that have claimed the lives of several thousands of civilians, destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of property, and delayed the country’s development. The present trial involves three suspects—Issa Sallet Adoum (also known as Bozize), Ousman Yaouba, and Mahamat Tahir—all of whom were members of the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) armed group. They are accused of massacring 49 civilians in the northern villages of Koundjili and Lemouna in May 2019.
The SCC was established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2301 (2016), which calls for an end to hostilities and accountability for crimes committed in CAR, and the country’s Organic Law No. 15.003, which stipulates for the creation, organization, and operation of the court. The purpose of the SCC is to hold to account persons who committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide since 2003 as well as deter further violence. As a hybrid court, the SCC has a mixed composition and jurisdiction, encompassing national and international laws and employing national and international personnel. The court’s hybrid nature gives it the potential to strengthen and enhance CAR’s national judicial system. Furthermore, the SCC’s location in the same country where the crimes were committed should increase victims’ participation in the process and make the trial proceedings more accessible to the people of CAR.
Since its establishment in 2015, the SCC has faced many challenges, from finding suitable premises to operate, recruiting qualified personnel, and accessing crime scenes outside the capital. In addition, the failure of political leaders to commit to ensuring accountability and justice for victims and to respect the SCC’s authority has not helped the court advance its work. For example, in November 2021, the government prevented the arraignment of Hassan Bouba Ali, the minister of livestock and animal health in the current administration. Bouba is a former leader in the rebel group Union for Peace in the Central African Republic and is suspected of playing a role in the 2018 massacre of more than 70 civilians, including children in Alindao, a town located some 450 kilometers east of Bangui. Since then, his case has never moved forward. Relatedly, suspects of the SCC are detained in the state penitentiary. Given the apparent disregard for the SCC’s mandate and independence, the government could conceivably release any of them at any time or deny the court access to the detainees as it did with Bouba in November 2021.
Over the years, the SCC has endured numerous setbacks that have dashed morale among victims and tarnished its image and authority in the eyes of the broader Central African public. Sometimes, it seems as though the SCC is the one on trial. It is thus imperative that the SCC complete the current trial in a timely and most transparent manner to demonstrate its capacity to deliver justice to the people. So far, only 1 of the 25 arrest warrants issued by the court has been executed. Since most of the indicted rebel leaders have fled to Chad, Sudan, and other neighboring countries, the SCC has to step up its collaboration with the authorities in these countries. For its part, the Central African government must fully recognize the court’s independence and provide it with the support it needs to carry out its mandate.
PHOTO: Thousands of people in the Central African Republic flee their homes on September 12, 2013, after reports of massacres in the area. (B. Heger/UNHCR)