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A First Look at Opinions on the Trial in the Central African Republic

This website exists to increase understanding of the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba and issues related to the trial.  But we also want to bring to our readers the views of those most affected by the events that are the subject of the trial, and who may be affected by the work of the ICC in this particular case.  What does the trial of Mr. Bemba mean to them?  How do they view the ICC?  Last year, the Open Society Justice Initiative asked journalist Katy Glassborow to approach people in the Central African Republic (CAR) with these and other questions.  Some media reports from CAR have also offered insights.  This is not a comprehensive survey of public opinion in CAR, but we hope to offer some initial indication of views there.  As the trial continues, we will return repeatedly to views in the region.

Interviews and reports from CAR indicate a country whose people largely welcome the trial and trust the ICC more than their own government to deliver some measure of justice for atrocities committed in the country.  But some of the people who spoke with the Justice Initiative also have concerns about the Bemba case and the work of the court.  Above all, perhaps, the interviews indicate that even as the start of the trial brings international media attention to the ICC courtroom in The Hague, it remains difficult for average citizens of CAR to receive information on this exercise in justice that is meant to serve them.

Of the many victims who spoke with the Justice Initiative, none believed that the CAR’s criminal justice system could be trusted to handle atrocities committed during “les événements” (“the events”), as the suffering of 2002-2003 is widely called.  Martin Faye of Radio Ndeke Luka explained, “The population feels there must not be impunity; people do not trust the justice here.”  Some CAR officials interviewed shared these doubts about local capacity.  Arsène Jean Bruno Minime is the president of the Tribunal de Grande Instance, the court that deals with civil cases.  He told the Justice Initiative, “Because of our limits we cannot judge certain cases at the moment.  If there is another court that can, we welcome that.”  Bernadette Sayo, Minister of Justice and Minister of Social Affairs echoed these views.  With regard to the ICC’s involvement, she added, “The fact that it has started is appeasing people; they know that something is being done.”

And indeed, victims approached by the Justice Initiative seemed pleased that Jean-Pierre Bemba was on trial.  Julien, a victim, said “Bemba must be sent to jail for what he did here.”  Another victim, Jeanne, who lives in a suburb of the capital called PK12, said that the Banyamulenge (as the MLC militia is known in CAR) “chased us from our house and dug holes and tore our clothes and threw the clothes into the holes to sleep there.  They split the windows and beds for firewood.  Bemba’s men lived here for a long time.  When they came here, children didn’t go to school.  We couldn’t cultivate our fields.  Our water well became their WC.”  Jeanne also told of widespread rape committed by MLC members.

Why only Bemba?
Among victims and others interviewed in CAR, however, the greatest apparent concern about the Bemba case was that it is the only one before the ICC related to “les événements”.   Victims stressed time and again that a Central African should also be tried for crimes committed against civilians, and not just a foreign militia leader.  Michel Alkhaly-Ngady, the president of a press association in CAR, noted that former President Ange-Félix Patassé Patassé, militia leader Abdoulaye Miskine, and others involved in the conflict of 2002-2003 remain politically active, “so we don’t understand what is going on.”

Many in CAR single out former President Patassé, saying that he should be sent to the ICC because he invited the MLC into the country in the first place, and because he either approved or failed to stop crimes that MLC members committed.  One victim in Bangui told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) [http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/locals-want-patasse-face-justice] last year, “If he isn’t arrested, it means there is no justice in the world for people like me.”  Another victim, Pyta, told the Justice Initiative, “Patassé should be taken to the ICC,” but noted that “to arrest a president is hard.”

There has also been confusion among the legal community in CAR. Marie-Edith Douzima, who represents victims in the Bemba trial, noted that people in the CAR legal community do not know how to deal with the fact that Mr. Patassé has not been arrested. Ms. Douzima told the Justice Initiative, “I am not a judge, I defend the victims, but during the confirmation of charges hearing the name of Patassé came up as co-author of crimes. We don’t know how to handle that in the CAR.”

The view that Mr. Bemba should not the only one on trial also extends to current President François Bozizé in the eyes of some.  “People think it is injustice if Bozizé is not taken to The Hague,” said press agency leader Alkhaly-Ngady.  Those who perhaps most wish for Bozizé to face justice at the ICC are the victims of alleged crimes by the presidential guard, mostly in the north of the country.  The Justice Initiative found it difficult to find people willing to discuss the actions of the presidential guard, whose presence is felt throughout Bangui.  Among civilians, fear of the presidential guard seemed obvious.  Even so, some were willing to speak.  Julien, a victim in PK12, told the Justice Initiative, “If Bozizé is arrested, it means even if you are a president or an ordinary person, there is justice on earth as God intended.”

Shifting perspective back to The Hague for a moment, why is it that the ICC Prosecutor has only sought to bring charges related to the conflict against Jean-Pierre Bemba, and not, for example former President Patassé?   Last year Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda explained to IWPR [http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/locals-want-patasse-face-justice]:

“We are happy and satisfied with the evidence for individual criminal responsibility of Bemba.  This is why we have proceeded against Bemba.  We do not have this yet for Patassé.  This is why we have not asked for an arrest warrant for him, even though he is a co-perpetrator of Bemba […] We are driven by the evidence and the evidence alone. Our investigations are continuing, [but] we will only prosecute Patassé if we are satisfied his individual criminal responsibility is established.”

In the past, the Office of the Prosecutor has denied persistent rumors that Mr. Patassé has been charged on a warrant that remains sealed from the public until an arrest is made.

What impact does the ICC have?

Even among those with limited knowledge, there seems to be broad acceptance for the work of the ICC. Pierre, in the town of Bossangoa, told the Justice Initiative, “The ICC is like a walking stick that supports a person who needs help. There will be an influence of the ICC on this country.”  Some victims see potential for the trial of Mr. Bemba to prevent crimes in the future.  For example, last year in the Bangui neighborhood of Combattant, a woman told IWPR [http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/locals-want-patasse-face-justice], “We hope this will stop people raping, knowing they may face justice.”

One United Nations source in CAR told the Justice Initiative that since Mr. Bemba’s arrest in July 2008, government forces involved in ongoing conflicts seemed not to be using a strategy of committing atrocities against civilians.  “It may be that Bozizé has taken the charges against Bemba to heart and is being very careful,” the source said.

Is information on the ICC available to people in CAR?

In its interviews, the Justice Initiative found that some victims didn’t know that Mr. Bemba was to face trial, and had never even heard of the ICC.  Told of the trial starting in The Hague, reactions varied.  Jeanne in PK12 told of many MLC rapes, and while she seemed pleased that Mr. Bemba was on trial, she suggested that it was best not to think about the past: “When we listen to the radio it renews the events in our minds.”  Another victim, Alphonsine, agreed: “We have a bad souvenir of Bemba, so don’t want to know.”

Others who were just learning of the trial seemed eager to know more.  One victim in PK12 told the Justice Initiative, “They should try Bemba in public so we can all see.”  Many were particularly pleased to hear that the court can order reparations.  But some expressed a desire to see the death penalty imposed, which is not possible at the ICC.  As Christiane in Bangui put it, “Let justice do its work.  If at the end they want to kill him that is fine.  If they take his belongings and pay is also fine.  Reparations are good.  They should be giving money personally to people.”  Many victims believe that Mr. Bemba is a wealthy man, and want payment for suffering they say he caused.

This sampling of opinion about the trial likely does not reflect the full spectrum of feelings about the case in CAR, which may also change over time.  It is important to note, since these interviews, the ICC launched a radio program and partnered with stations in and around Bangui to help inform people about the work of the court and the upcoming trial of Mr. Bemba. However, as the trial begins, it will remain a major challenge for the court and others to communicate what is happening in The Hague back to the population most affected.  As CAR lawyer Celestin N’Zala told IWPR last year [http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/icc-seen-struggling-communicate], “People in the provinces do not know about the ICC. A lot needs to be done. People need to be sensitized so they know.”