Central African Republic: Special Court hands down first reparations decision

After several months of hesitation, the Special Criminal Court on June 16 handed down in Bangui a first reparations decision in its first and only trial. This decision does not fully meet the expectations of the victims, who were calling for more individual compensation. The lawyers say they will appeal.

Judge Aimée-Pascal Delimo (Special Criminal Court / SPC) in the Central African Republic.
Central African national judge Aimée-Pascal Delimo, president of the assize section of the Special Criminal Court (CPS), pictured during the first verdict of the hybrid court in Bangui, which sentenced three militiamen from the "3R" armed group on 31 October 2022. On 16 June, the hearing was presided over by Émile Ndjapou, assessor during the criminal session. © Barbara Debout / AFP
5 min 7Approximate reading time

Two wells, two memorials, a total of 26 victims and claimants each receiving sums of 200,000 CFA (around 300 euros) to 1 million CFA (around 1,500 euros): this is the total amount of collective and financial reparations pronounced by the Special Criminal Court (SCC) for the victims of an attack perpetrated in Ouham-Pendé, in the northwest of the country, on May 21, 2019.

During this attack, 32 people died and six women were raped in two villages: Koundjili and Lemouna. At the end of this first trial, on October 31, 2022, the Bangui-based hybrid court sentenced three of the perpetrators, Issa Sallet Adoum alias Bozize, Mahamat Tahir and Yaouba Ousman. Adoum was given a life sentence while the other two got 20 years in jail.  Murder, rape and pillage were committed by or under the responsibility of these members of an armed militia. They were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This criminal judgment has been appealed, and the final arguments will be heard on June 19 before the Appeals Chamber of the SCC.

Eyes on the SCC for reparations

In a country scarred for two decades by war and serious human rights abuses, victims' hopes for reparations are keenly focused on this UN-backed tribunal, which is struggling to get off the starting blocks. The International Criminal Court has already failed to meet their demands, due to its acquittal of Congolese Jean-Pierre Bemba in the first international trial concerning the Central African Republic (the ICC Victims Fund's assistance programme has intervened in the absence of reparation from the Court). The ordinary Central African courts are unable to implement reparations they order, due to the indigence of those convicted and the State's inability to fill the gap. As a result, many observers wondered what reparations the SCC would define for this first "educational" trial, in the words of its president, Central African magistrate Michel Landry Luanga.

At the end of 2022, André Olivier Manguereka, lead counsel for the civil parties in this trial, visited the villages of Koundjili and Lemouna to consult victims on their expectations in terms of reparations. At the January hearing, he and his Central African colleague Claudine Bagaza estimated the overall amount of reparations, both individual and collective, at no less than 1.38 billion CFA (around 2.1 million euros). But in their brief, the lawyers only asked for 30 million (around €45,000). They have on several occasions indicated to the court their desire to correct and complete this request, which they claim was filed in a hurry to avoid missing the legal deadlines.

Decision “postponed indefinitely”

When the civil parties’ hearings closed on January 27, the court decision was scheduled for March 10. However, on that day there was a dramatic turn of events: only the president of the chamber, Central African judge Aimé Pascal Delimo, was present. He announced just as theatrically, as cited in the June 16 judgment, that "the deliberation is postponed and the hearing is adjourned indefinitely pending a new composition of the Assize section". The public was left in the dark. No press release was issued to explain the crisis or to clarify the status of the reparation procedure. In fact, no one at the SCC knew. 

The stalemate lasted two months. According to several of our sources close to the Court, there was a fundamental disagreement between the two Central African judges who wanted to award more extensive compensation and the international judge who favoured a more realistic approach. In addition, President Delimo's request on March 10 for a "new composition" of the court was legally problematic and materially impossible to meet. "There is currently no other section of the Assize Chamber" at the SCC, says a note sent on March 23 to its partners, including the local UN agencies trying to help the court break the deadlock. "The SCC support unit of MINUSCA [UN mission in the Central African Republic] is currently working with the judges of the Assize Chamber to find a solution to this deadlock, so that the Assize Chamber can deliver its reparations judgment quickly and thus avoid a denial of justice," states this note.

On June 2, the President of the Assize Division ratified a decision "designating Judge Émile Ndjapou to preside over the hearing on civil interests", reads the June 16 decision. This saves face: the chamber is not dissolved, but nonetheless reconfigured. The presiding Central African judge becomes assessor and the assessor judge becomes president. The international judge remains present, so that the proceedings can be brought to a "rapid and fair conclusion", says an order quoted in the June 16 ruling.

35,000 euros in individual compensation

After a final setback, when a hearing scheduled for June 12 was postponed, the decision was pronounced on June 16, in the presence of victims who had come to hear the long-awaited judgment.

Ndjapou, the assessor promoted to president, read out the conclusions. Three survivors injured during the attack on May 21, 2019 were each awarded 600,000 CFA (around 900 euros). A fourth, who was tied up during the same attack, was awarded 200,000 CFA. Two young female rape victims, minors at the time of the events, were awarded 1 million CFA each (1,500 euros), and four rape victims who were adults at the time 700,000 CFA (around 1,000 euros). Lastly, 16 "rightful claimants" of deceased persons who left widows and orphans were each awarded 1 million. In all, the three men who took part in the attack were ordered to pay 22.8 million CFA (nearly 35,000 euros) to 26 victims, including 16 "rightful claimants" representing their families. The convicts were declared indigent, and the Assize Chamber invited the clerk's office "to seek external funding". 

The amount of individual reparations awarded is close to that of the only funding the court has received to date specifically for reparations, which comes from the United States and amounts, according to our information, to 37,000 dollars. But while the court decision comes close to this amount, it only managed to do so after numerous requests for civil party status were rejected, to the astonishment of the lawyers. In particular, all those filed after the close of the investigation were rejected.

Two wells and two memorials

As for collective reparations, the cost of which is not mentioned, the chamber granted two requests: the construction of two wells for the two villages, "which will enable the victims and survivors, who are still suffering from the trauma of the crimes, to have access to drinking water"; and the construction in the same villages of a monument "recalling the circumstances of the crimes: as the villagers were standing under a mango tree when their assailants appeared and executed them, this place will be adapted to enable the villagers to meet in remembrance of the dead".

Requests that were rejected include the construction of a health centre and a training centre, which fall "within the general remit of the Central African State, which is not a party to the proceedings"; "the installation of law enforcement agencies in the area", which victims also requested; and the request for installation of a telephone relay antenna, which would involve a private operator. The court also refused a request to allocate, collectively, 15 million CFA as reparations to each of the two villages.

Civil parties to appeal

Present at the hearing, Angela Namsengué introduced herself as the sister of a victim killed in Lemouna. She deplores the fact that the court rejected "many of our demands for collective reparation" and handed down a "judgment that won’t deter criminals", given the low amounts of compensation they are ordered to pay.

Roufaï Sariratou, coordinator of the Women's Organizations for Reconciliation and Development, considers the amounts "insignificant". "We are not satisfied, we the victims, because we have been affected, we have handicaps. They say they are going to give you a million [around €1,500] to take care of your family, what use is that to you?"

At the end of the hearing, civil parties' lawyer Manguereka expressed his disagreement with the judgment and announced his intention to appeal.

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