JUSTICE INFO: Since its UN-backed creation in 2015, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) has struggled and has conducted only one trial. Yet the Central African government has extended its mandate for five years, and since July the court has announced a series of new arrests after those in 2020. What is really new?
TOUSSAINT MUNTAZINI: What’s new is that there is a much higher number of arrests. I can tell you that at the moment, we have 14 cases under investigation and that some have led to arrests. Twenty arrest warrants have been issued, five have already been executed, and some have not yet been carried out. We are waiting for the opportunity to execute them.
A year ago, the arrest of former rebel turned minister Hassan Bouba made a big impression. He was prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the SCC, but was released with the clear support of the president’s office and, people say, of its Russian "allies”. What has changed since then?
That’s an incident that, in my opinion, belongs to the past. We deplore what happened with Bouba, but we have engaged in a responsible dialogue with the authorities. The investigation of this case continues and, when the time comes, the judges will decide on the best course to take.
What is the reason for this apparently illegal "release"?
Only those who carried out the release can explain it. At our level, we considered it an obstruction of justice. The man had been arrested and taken to Camp de Roux prison. On the day he was to be taken out to be heard in the presence of his lawyer, there was an incident that prevented our agents from accessing the prison and, in the meantime, the man was evacuated [Hassan Bouba is still Minister of Livestock and Animal Health]. It was an unfortunate incident, but I believe it belongs to the past.
Have you received any guarantees or promises from the authorities?
All the authorities we met told us they support the Court's work, that they are not there to hinder it, but that perhaps there should be better communication between the Court and them whenever there are sensitive operations to be conducted.
So it was due to a lack of coordination?
That is a perception. It's a perception of the authorities, who would perhaps have liked to coordinate better, so as not to be surprised.
Does this mean a limit has been set on what level of people the SCC can arrest?
Formally, we have not been notified that there are limits. So if the people we intend to prosecute have committed crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the Court and these crimes are consistent with our prosecutorial and investigative strategy, we will continue to do our work. Obviously, there may be a need for better communication, and whenever there are potentially difficult operations we will see how they can be better organized.
The first SCC mandate officially ends on October 22, 2023, and looks set to be extended [this interview took place two weeks before the mandate was extended for five years]. What are the prospects for more trials?
It will depend on the investigating judges, but there are some cases that are quite advanced. We have three investigating offices, and if each office could get things moving and bring two cases in the course of 2023, we could easily have six trials. There are factors that sometimes cause delays that the magistrates don’t want.
So six trials in the next two years?
It is quite possible, given the number of cases under investigation.
The investigations, and in part the arrests rely on the 20 or so Central African police officers and gendarmes of the SCC Special Judicial Police Unit (SJPU). Do they have the capacity to gather evidence and bring suspects into custody in all these cases?
Yes, I believe so. There has been a qualitative and quantitative improvement in the work of the unit. It is supervised by two [international] investigative advisors and also supported by UNPOL [United Nations police]. It has four teams of investigators. The SJPU is doing a good job, although the workload is heavy, because they are used both for both preliminary and ongoing investigations.
At the Public Prosecutor's Office, we have three preliminary investigations at the moment. There are also twelve files "under analysis". Before opening an investigation, we analyse whether it is indeed feasible, whether there are sufficient elements, whether the witnesses and evidence are available, and whether the security conditions are met. We have to take into account that we have six months to complete an investigation. There’s no question of opening an investigation if we are not sure of its outcome within six months, otherwise it would be a waste of time.
An SCC magistrate told us that two rogatory commissions sent to the International Criminal Court in October 2021 have remained unanswered, and that there’s almost no collaboration from the ICC. However, the ICC prosecutor has just said he wants to "consolidate cooperation with the SCC". What do you expect from this?
We already signed a memorandum of understanding with the ICC. The problem is that when we make requests for cooperation, the ICC sometimes has to refer to its sources, so it takes time. The new leadership of the ICC, through the Prosecutor, has indeed expressed the intention to cooperate better. We hope that the delays experienced in the past can be resolved with the new policy.
The ICC's argument is that you don't protect witnesses well...
Well, maybe our witness protection unit doesn't have as many resources as the ICC's, but we share the concern to protect witnesses. We have relocation measures, physical protection, a psychologist who takes care of vulnerable victims. And since we started, we have never had an incident with a protected witness.
The SCC has 18 people in detention, including 3 convicts, but the long-planned special section in Ngaragba prison has still not been built. Why?
I don’t know, but I believe it is a question of availability of funds.
So the SCC detainees remain with the other prisoners at Camp de Roux?
Is that a problem?
Yes, of course, because there are standards regarding the rights of people in detention that are not respected at the moment. For example, on food, space and sanitary conditions.
What are the challenges for the SCC in 2023?
The challenges do not change much. In terms of security, the country is still at war. In terms of logistics, we are essentially dependent on MINUSCA [United Nations mission in the Central African Republic] for investigations in rural areas. If we want to conduct an investigation in the provinces, for example, we have to contact MINUSCA, establish a flight plan and follow it. But we have limits on the duration of investigations, which can cause us some problems. And then obviously, there are the financial means of the Court.
What has changed compared with when you arrived in 2017?
Some things have changed. Now we can rely on the FSI [Central African internal security forces], which was not the case some time ago. They are better trained, better equipped, and there is greater collaboration between the military and police authorities.
Is this due to the arrival of the Russians?
No, I don't think so. The internal security forces have been supported by EUTM [European Union Training Mission, since 2016]. This is the result. We work with the Central African authorities, we do not deal with "allies". Carrying things out on the ground is always with the Central African forces.
What purpose do you think the SCC serves in the Central African Republic?
The government indicated from the start its desire to fight against impunity, so if it has now decided to renew the SCC mandate [the bill to renew the mandate was adopted by the cabinet before this interview, on November 23], I believe it’s because it still wants to fight impunity and build a democratic state where lasting peace can prevail through justice.
Do you think the government is really following that track, in general?
It’s not for me to say. From the moment the Court was created, that was the initial idea. It was Mrs. Samba Panza [President of the Central African Republic between 2014 and 2016] who signed the text of the law creating the Court, and it was the current President who implemented it. So there has been a continuity of willingness to support the SCC. I think they were not obliged to adopt the bill at the Council of Ministers level. If they did, it’s because they expect added value from the court.
When you arrived in the Central African Republic in 2017, you nevertheless hoped that things would move more quickly. How do you explain that this did not happen?
Indeed, I was among those who thought things could go very quickly. But the difficulty came from the very nature of the Court. It is a hybrid court, so the composition of the staff does not necessarily depend on the court itself. The recruitment procedures [of the United Nations, which supports the SCC] are cumbersome, expensive, slow, and the court had a lot of trouble getting started. There is this problem of recruitment that has dragged on for a long time. And then the provision of buildings. You remember the first time we met, it was in an apartment that was used as an office; afterwards, we moved to the central police station; and, finally, we came to work here [in the Court's premises, inaugurated in November 2020]. All of this took us about two years. It has had an impact. But I think the main thing is done. If the Court's second term is secured, things can move much more quickly.
So the difficulty was not so much the Central African context as the Court's model?
The context also had an impact. I am talking about security conditions that are not always met in the places where one wants to conduct investigations. But I think that the very nature of the Court has had a serious impact on its development. If it had been a national court, I believe things would have started the first day the magistrates were appointed. Here, we have to wait for the partners, the contributing States to act, and that takes a lot of time. But the fact that the court exists, that it works and that it can give hope to Central African victims is its best result. I think that the SCC has its place.
Do you intend to stay on as prosecutor?
My mandate ends in principle around March/April, when the renewal should be decided. At that time, we will decide.
Is the question really on the table?
Yes, of course it is. I've been here [more than] five years. I think it's time for me to start thinking about the future.
That would mean you would stay on until the end of the first SCC term, and someone would replace you for the second term?
I haven't made a decision yet. I am going until the end of my mandate, which is until the end of the first SCC term, and then I will advise.