Five leaders from a predominantly Christian militia in Central African Republic were given life terms Friday for war crimes and crimes against humanity over atrocities committed in 2017.
Justice Minister Flavien Mbata said the sentences, handed down by the CAR Criminal Court in the capital Bangui, were the first ever issued by the nation’s judiciary for crimes against humanity.
Two of the sentences concern well-known militia figures known by their nicknames of Pino Pino and Bere-Bere, an AFP reporter in the courtroom said.
Their men are accused of slaughtering dozens of Muslims on May 13 2017.
CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been grappling with violence since 2013.
The “Pino Pino” militia was one of the predominantly Christian and animist armed groups that sprang up to combat a mainly Muslim rebel coalition, the Seleka.
Vicious fighting brought the country to the brink of sectarian war, prompting intervention by France, the former colonial power.
Today, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera governs with the support of MINUSCA, a 14,700-strong UN peacekeeping force.
But armed groups control two-thirds of the country, typically claiming to represent a religious or ethnic group and frequently fighting over its rich mineral resources.
The trial concerned an attack on a district in the southeastern town of Bangassou and a nearby UN base.
According to the UN, 72 people were killed, 76 were wounded and 4,400 people fled their homes.
The militiamen especially targeted members of the Muslim community who had taken refuge in the town’s Catholic church.
Pino Pino is the nom de guerre of a self-described general named Crepin Wakanam, and Bere-Bere is the name of his lieutenant, Kevin Bere.
Bere-Bere turned himself in to a MINUSCA base in January 2018, saying he sought their protection against his former chief.
Four months later, Pino Pino was arrested with 33 followers in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which then extradited him.
Friday’s verdict came two days after the first anniversary of a peace agreement signed in Khartoum between the government and 14 militia leaders — the eighth such attempt to end violence.
Fighting has forced nearly a quarter of 4.5 million people in the CAR to flee their homes.