Statement of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Courtat the opening of the confirmation of charges hearing in the case against Mr Yekatom and Mr Ngaïssona
Mr President, Your Honours,
Patrice-Édouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yekatom are here today because of their criminal involvement in a campaign of violence and terror against civilians, including children — a campaign carried out by the Anti-Balaka between December 2013 and December 2014 as part of an armed conflict which has devastated the Central African Republic from 2012.
As the Document Containing the Charges asserts, Messrs Ngaïssona and Yekatom jointly committed, contributed to or otherwise assisted in the commission of the serious crimes charged in this case which were perpetrated by the Anti-Balaka. Mr Yekatom also personally committed some crimes, ordered crimes, or did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress the crimes committed by his subordinates, who were under his effective command and control.
Prior to 2012, Muslims and Christians lived together peaceably in the Central African Republic. They grew up together, intermarried, and were neighbours, friends, and members of the same families. The chronic violence which had scourged the country over decades had never divided them along religious lines. But all that changed in late 2012. An armed group known by the name "Seleka" emerged in the North-East of the Central African Republic. The Seleka, which was a coalition made up of mainly Muslim fighters, rose up against the regime of President François Bozize. This revolt, which began in the North-East of the country, gathered strength as it advanced on Bangui.
On 24 March 2013, the Seleka finally descended on the capital and ousted the existing government. After Bozize and those loyal to him had fled into exile, the Seleka appropriated the resources, structures and military apparatus of the Central African State. Once in power, the Seleka implemented a scorched-earth policy and one of terror, targeting the former fiefdoms of Bozize and his supporters.
During the months following the 24 March 2013 coup, a counter movement began to build within the country. Widespread atrocities drove people to defend themselves, their communities, and their families against the Seleka's rule. It was also driven by a desire for vengeance and revenge against those perceived responsible for the Seleka's crimes and those perceived as traitors for having sided with them - the Muslim population. One Anti-Balaka fighter, describes that:
"Under the Seleka rule, people felt helpless and this triggered the creation of the Anti-Balaka. It came from everywhere, not one person. Initially, people only gathered to protect themselves. When the Seleka entered villages, they killed men, women and children. Some of the boys managed to escape and they organised to defend themselves. If you take 100 Anti-Balaka, everyone has their reasons for joining. They can tell you what the Seleka did to them in order to turn them to the Anti-Balaka …"
For another, it was his mother's murder that led him to fight:
"When I heard my mother was killed and her body was left out on the street, I left to see my brothers and we buried her next to her house. When somebody kills your mother you don't feel like yourself anymore. I was angry and did anything that came into my mind, I couldn't forgive. I decided to create a rebellion. When my mother was killed I got very angry and wanted to avenge her death."
Many victims of Seleka crimes held all Muslims responsible. One witness said:
"Les Arabes seuls la, ont tué ma mere, mon pere … oh, c'est trop. C'est trop. Il faut les Arabes doit quitter. Il faut les Arabes doit quitter dans la Centrafrique. Ici, c'est mon pays…. Tous les arabes, n'importe. Mais sinon, je dois me continuer tuer meme les Arabes, me venger."
The Central African Republic (CAR) has a tradition whereby civilians have formed community-based self-defence groups. These groups have long been used in Central African politics – able to be activated when the need arises. Mr Ngaïssona knew of them. And, in the context of this case, he knew of their motivation to exact revenge against Muslims for Seleka atrocities.
From exile, Mr Ngaïssona and other members of Bozize's inner circle used these groups. They exploited the vengeance and hatred felt by the people, to create a formidable fighting force which could defeat the Seleka, opening the way for them to reclaim power — what we describe as the Strategic Common Plan.
The evidence submitted demonstrates that Mr Ngaïssona and his co-perpetrators enhanced the capabilities of these insular self-defence groups – coordinating them, resourcing them, and promoting their collective action. In so doing, Mr Ngaïssona knew that the fighting force to which he contributed to forming and developing would, in the ordinary course of events, violently target the Muslim civilian population in western CAR and commit the war crimes and crimes against humanity now charged.
From mid-2013, the Anti-Balaka ranks swelled as Mr Ngaïssona encouraged, portrayed, and promoted them as "liberators" - "national heroes". They saw themselves, and were seen by Central Africans, as "saviours", freeing the people from the bloody reign of the Seleka. Mr Ngaïssona called them his "children."
At first, the Anti-Balaka was celebrated. One witness explains:
"Women in the neighbourhood were rubbing metal pot lids together, egging the young men on. They women were chanting: "Alla la, alla gaawe!" which means "they are here, they arrived!" in Sango.
But soon, the Anti-Balaka, like the Seleka, murdered and oppressed. They betrayed the freedom struggle values and the hope once held out for them. A Christian tells:
"We believed that they were here to liberate us from the Seleka. I was not aware that they intended to target Muslim civilians. Soon I became frightened of them and started detesting them as they quickly changed their behaviour."
As news of Anti-Balaka attacks upon Muslims spread throughout the country, another witness explains how some refused to leave: "they could not believe that their Christian 'brothers' would turn against them."
Yet, the Anti-Muslim rhetoric of Bozize and his inner circle pitting Christians against Muslims as perceived supporters of the Seleka was the reality. Muslims were seen as 'traitors', 'collaborators' – 'foreigners'. The Anti-Balaka made all Muslims their targets. They destroyed Mosques. They looted and burnt down their shops, and homes. They decimated communities, expelling Muslims on an unprecedented scale; they murdered; they raped women and children. The harsh reality for Muslim civilians was that there was no place for them in CAR, their own country.
In their pursuit to oust the Seleka and reclaim power, Mr Ngaïssona and other members of the Strategic Common Plan enhanced the capacity of Anti-Balaka groups to commit the charged crimes.
As Minister of Youth, Sports, Arts and Culture, Mr Ngaïssona wielded authority and influence. He encouraged the youth to take up arms. He mobilised and coordinated groups on the ground. He was wealthy, and he could resource them. Mr Ngaïssona provided the Anti-Balaka with money, helped to support them, assisted in their access to weapons and ammunition. These and other essential contributions helped transform the Anti-Balaka into a force able to eventually defeat the Seleka regime – but also, and importantly, one capable of committing the Charged Crimes on the scale and magnitude in which they were perpetrated.
Mr Yekatom led one such Anti-Balaka group. Styling himself as Commander "Rambo", he, together with his group, violently targeted the Muslim population in Bangui, Boeing and other areas in southwestern CAR. They expelled Muslims. They murdered them; and Mr Yekatom personally committed crimes.
Mr Yekatom armed and trained his group – thousands strong. In his words to one of his soldiers, "the purpose of the training was so we could kill Muslims and Selekas". His soldiers obeyed. They openly voiced their intentions to "slaughter" the Muslim population.
One witness, a Central African Muslim, was one of many victims forced to flee his home in the seminal 5 December 2013 Anti-Balaka attack on Bangui. Mr Ngaïssona and Mr Yekatom are both charged with crimes arising from this coordinated offensive, among others.
Watching from a hole in the wall of his compound, the witness describes:
"Between 08:00-09:00 the Anti-Balaka chased a Muslim man and caught him in the road in front of my house. The attackers were shouting "This is an Arab". I could hear the man pleading for help but the Anti-Balaka beat him up and killed him…I saw the body of this man lying in the road… I was calling everywhere for help to get my family safely out of the neighbourhood… I feared for the safety of my family and I was desperate to get them out to a safe location… I believe we had no option but to flee from my neighbourhood. The consequence for staying in the house would have been us all being killed."
The violent targeting of Muslims was an Anti-Balaka policy, repeated in the western provinces.
There, Anti-Balaka elements spread from village to village arriving in armed convoys, or on foot, looting, killing and pillaging as they went. Huge swathes of the country were emptied through the flight and expulsion of their Muslim populations.
Fearing for their lives, massive columns of displaced Muslims left their towns and villages. They fled wherever they could, including to neighboring countries. These unarmed men, women and children were left highly vulnerable, lacking protection and were often exposed and targeted on their desperate journey to safety.
Men were frequently separated from women and children. Away from their male relatives, women were especially vulnerable. They were subjected to violence on the basis of their ethnicity, including violence of a sexual nature as one of the most degrading and humiliating forms. Defenceless civilians were confronted with Anti-Balaka elements who knew that they could act with near impunity. One witness, a young Muslim girl, was part of a group who ran from the attacking Anti-Balaka to seek refuge with their Imam. Four members of her family died on their way. Hiding alone in an abandoned house, she was cornered by five Anti-Balaka soldiers. As she was raped, she told them "I would rather be killed."
Many who did not, or could not, flee their home towns were corralled into enclaves, unable to leave without risking death. These enclaves were described by some as an "open air prison". Those inside were often left to starve and die of preventable diseases.
Mr President, Your Honours,
The Anti-Balaka's attack on Muslims in western CAR, whether in Bangui or in the provinces, was not random. It was not spontaneous. Rather, the evidence is that it occurred over a large territory and over a long period. It emerged from a singular common purpose and policy – the violent targeting of the Muslim population and their perceived supporters.
The Anti-Balaka was an organised militia, and it was effective, with Mr Ngaïssona atop the group's National Coordination.
The Anti-Balaka had full communication ability with respect to the lines of authority. Anti-Balaka "zone commanders" ("ComZones") received instructions about planned future attacks, and reported back to the National Coordination on disciplinary issues, their positions, and the outcomes of their attacks.
Trained soldiers reinforced the group's ranks and were needed to implement the Strategic and Operational common plans. Mr Yekatom's role and group were an important part of those plans. He was a military commander in charge of thousands of men, and he organised his group in a military-like hierarchy. He was respected, feared, and his orders to be obeyed.
Whether on the ground, or coordinating from a distance, both Mr Yekatom and Mr Ngaïssona knew that the charged crimes were occurring, or would occur in the ordinary course of events.
Both knew that the recruitment, campaigns, and deployment of troops, filled with hatred and vengeance against Muslims, would be directed towards not only armed Seleka, but also Muslim civilians.
They knew that these attacks would involve children, not yet 15 years old. Those children, enlisted and used in hostilities, were also inhumanely treated, and subjected to violence.
Children were also ordered to commit crimes against civilians. One child describes his experience in the Anti-Balaka. He said that when their chiefs "caught an Arab alive":
"they will order us to stab him.… We were instructed to stab or cut his ear off by the […] section chiefs. When the prisoner was exhausted we would dig a shallow grave, about a knee height, put him in and then the chiefs will come back and kill him…"
These children - exploited, violated, and forced to participate in atrocities - are victims of Mr Yekatom and Mr Ngaïssona's crimes. They stand alongside countless other Central Africans turned against one another to serve the political aims of powerful men.
Mr President, Your Honours,
The charges before you today are serious, and the evidence submitted requires their confirmation.
The Muslim residents of the Central African Republic were relentlessly terrorised. Perceived as complicit with the Seleka, they were victimised by a violent armed group intent on their elimination.
On the evidence before you, substantial grounds exist to believe that Mr Ngaïssona is responsible for the charged crimes. He played a key role in, and essentially contributed to, the Strategic Common Plan. He helped develop it; he assisted its implementation – organising and coordinating Anti-Balaka chiefs and ComZones, leading tens of thousands of Anti-Balaka elements. He held status, authority and influence, which he wielded over these groups in Bangui and in the western provinces.
The evidence submitted also shows substantial grounds to believe that Mr Yekatom is responsible for the crimes committed by his troops in areas under his control. In implementing his Operational Common Plan and to effect the purpose common to all of the charged Anti-Balaka crimes, Mr Yekatom deployed troops and commanded them in their violent targeting of the Muslim civilian population. He failed to prevent or punish troops under his effective command and control, knowing that they were committing or about to commit these crimes. Moreover, he ordered and personally committed crimes.
Mr President, your Honours,
Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yekatom must be held to account, and this matter bound over for trial.