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ICC Prosecutor Opens New Central African Investigation

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor has opened a new investigation into crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2012. Earlier investigations conducted in the country led to the indictment of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has been on trial at the court based in The Hague since November 2010.

In a statement issued on September 24, 2014, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stated that the new investigation was warranted based on information from “reliable sources” indicating that the Séléka and the anti-Balaka groups had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder, rape, forced displacement, persecution, pillaging, attacks against humanitarian missions and the use of child soldiers in combat.

“The list of atrocities is endless. I cannot ignore these alleged crimes,” stated Ms. Bensouda.

The Séléka rebels started an uprising in the CAR in late 2012 when they seized towns in the north of the country. Following a January 2013 peace agreement, their advance was halted. However, the rebels later claimed that President François Bozizé had failed to fulfill some of the terms of the peace agreement. They broke the ceasefire and toppled the Bozizé regime in March 2013.

According to reports, the coup was marked with killings, rape and looting. Among those killed in the fighting were 13 South African peacekeeping soldiers. On March 31, 2013, Michel Djotodia, the Séléka rebel leader, proclaimed himself president of the country and announced a transition government. Sectarian violence continued to escalate in the country and Mr. Djotodia stepped down as head of state in January 2014. Catherine Samba-Panza was appointed interim president until national elections planned for next year.

The ICC prosecutor opened a preliminary examination of the situation in the CAR last February. In May 2014, the country’s transitional government referred the situation to the court requesting investigations into the alleged crimes. The prosecutor said her decision to pursue full investigations was based on “comprehensive and independent” analysis of information from “multiple reliable sources.”

The investigations will involve prosecutors collecting criminal evidence “with a view to identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the most serious crimes.”

In October 2002, Mr. Bozizé led a coup attempt against then president Ange-Félix Patassé. To help his loyalist forces beat back the rebellion, Mr. Patassé invited Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops into the country.

Prosecutors charge that in the five months following the Congolese soldiers’ deployment into the conflict country, they carried out widespread murders, rape and pillaging. As their commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba has been charged with criminal responsibility for the alleged crimes. He has pleaded not guilty to all five charges against him.

A number of defense witnesses in the trial repeatedly named Mr. Bozizé as the man whose forces committed many of the crimes which the prosecution blamed on the MLC. These witnesses also stated that Mr. Bemba’s fighters were not present in several towns where prosecutors say abuses were committed. Instead, they said, it was Bozizé’s rebels who controlled those areas and who residents later told the MLC committed atrocities.

Although it is not clear whether the ICC prosecutor had previously closed investigations in the CAR, it is equally not clear whether Mr. Bozizé was ever a target of investigations in the 2002–2003 conflict. It was his government that referred the case against Mr. Bemba to the world court, after local investigations and an attempt to prosecute the Congolese opposition leader in absentia failed to take off.

Both Mr. Djotodia and Mr. Bozizé are currently living in exile.