Central African Republic: Trial of Séléka commander opens before the ICC

The crimes committed just under a decade ago in the Central African Republic continue to fuel the work of the International Criminal Court. While a trial is underway against two former leaders of the "anti-balaka" militia, the ICC is today opening the trial of the opposing fighters: the Séléka. Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, former commander of this rebel coalition is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, accused of torture as a Seleka rebel commander in the Central African Republic, appears before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, former commander of the Séléka rebel coalition, is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. © Peter Dejong/ Pool / AFP
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A senior former rebel commander in the Central African Republic goes on trial Monday before the International Criminal Court, facing charges of torturing alleged opposition supporters as the country spiralled into sectarian violence.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani faces seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the brutal 2013 persecution of residents in the capital Bangui, who were accused of supporting ousted president Francois Bozize.

One of the poorest countries in the world, the CAR spiralled into conflict in that year when Bozize was ejected by a rebel coalition called the Seleka, drawn largely from the Muslim minority.

The coup triggered a sectarian bloodbath between the Seleka and "anti-Balaka", which means "anti-machete" forces, who were mainly Christian or animist and who backed Bozize.

Said, 52, prosecutors say, was a senior Seleka commander in charge of a police compound where alleged Bozize supporters were beaten and tortured after they were arrested.

Sometimes referred to as "colonel", "chief" or "director", Said oversaw the day-to-day operations of the compound which belonged to a police unit called the "Central Office for the Repression of Banditry" or OCRB, his arrest warrant said.

Said instructed subordinates to mistreat detainees for allegedly supporting Bozize or the anti-Balaka, subjecting them to the so-called "arbatachar" torture method to extract confessions, it added.

The technique involved tying a person's elbows to their feet behind their backs, thereby placing them in an excruciating painful position which often caused permanent bodily damage.

Prisoners were kept in cramped conditions and even thrown in a small underground cell, only accessible through a hole in the floor of Said's office at the OCRB headquarters in the capital, ICC prosecutors said.

'Ears ripped off'

"Said oversaw the detention of men who were beaten with rifle butts, or slapped violently and threatened with death," they said in court documents.

"Others were whipped with horsehide whips or sticks with metal wires, beaten with truncheons on their feet while kneeling, or had their ears pulled with pliers and partially ripped off," the prosecutors said.

The CAR authorities handed Said to the ICC in January last year in response to an international arrest warrant issued in 2019.

The ICC, the world's only independent war crimes court set up in 2002, late last year partially confirmed charges against Said including counts of torture, persecution and cruel treatment of detainees committed at the OCRB compound.

Two former anti-Balaka leaders, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom, are also on trial at the ICC.

Thousands have lost their lives in the ongoing conflict despite intervention by former colonial power France and the United Nations.

The country of some five million people -- which the UN says is the world's second least developed nation -- remains gripped by violence and human rights violations.