Central African Republic: a warning from the ICC

After being arrested in the Central African Republic on January 20, Mahamat Saïd was transferred last night to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The story of this veteran Central African rebel spans more than a decade of rebellion and violence. With his arrest, the ICC "rebalances" its Central African cases and sends a message to the country where a new armed coalition, of which Saïd is a member, has been threatening the central government since mid-December.

Mahamat Saïd
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5 min 1Approximate reading time

Mahamat Saïd Abdel Kain, around 50 years old, is little known to the general public. Yet he has been an important figure in the Central African rebellion for more than 10 years. On January 20, he was arrested in the central town of Bria in circumstances that remain unclear. He was first transferred to the Roux camp in Bangui and was officially handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on January 24. The plane carrying him took off from Bangui in the late afternoon and landed in The Hague shortly before midnight.

The ICC arrest warrant against Saïd had been under seal for two years. Issued on January 7, 2019, it states that Mahamat Saïd is suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity - including imprisonment, torture, persecution, and enforced disappearance - allegedly committed in the Central African capital in 2013, according to a court statement issued on January 24.

Itinerary of a Central African rebel

Mahamat Saïd's itinerary is "classic" for a member of the Seléka ("Alliance", in Sango), a coalition of political-military groups created in the north of the country in 2012 to protest discrimination against people of the north and east. Saïd, who comes from Bria, told members of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in July 2013 that he was born into a family of diamond collectors. Bria, "the shining place”, was then a major gem production hub in the Central African Republic, a trade that still benefits armed groups today through the illegal export of diamonds. Saïd recounts in the interview that he joined an armed group wanting revenge for the death of one of his nephews, who was killed in a mine by people who were known but were left unpunished by the authorities.

According to the FIDH, Saïd became a member of the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) in 2008. The CPJP, headed by Nourredine Adam, is one of the organizations behind the creation of Séléka, which seized power by force in Bangui in March 2013. As a lieutenant and then colonel within the CPJP, Saïd participated in this attack, after which Michel Djotodia proclaimed himself president of the CAR. Noureddine Adam became his Minister of Public Security. He appointed Mahamat Saïd as commander of the Central African Office for the Repression of Banditism (OCRB), a unit of the Central African police.

In Bangui, members of the Séléka were committing more and more abuses. The rebels in power hunted former members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and organized murderous raids looking for weapons in neighborhoods such as Boye Rabe and Gobongo. Nourredine Adam's men were accused of sparing no one in their torture, extrajudicial executions, and looting. Many people were detained within the OCRB. According to at least one witness identified by the FIDH, "Colonel Saïd" was present during the torture sessions. According to the ICC press release, the acts for which Saïd is being prosecuted were committed during the period when he was director of the OCRB, between March 2013 and January 2014. "When the Seléka took power, Mahamat Saïd was part of Noureddine Adam's close team," says Nathalia Dukhan, an investigator for the anti-corruption NGO The Sentry. "Together they sowed terror and chaos for several months, particularly in the capital city of Bangui.”

A message to the new rebellion and to Bozizé

The Séléka was removed from power less than a year after seizing it, and once this coalition was officially dissolved, Saïd joined the Front populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), led by Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissène. According to Dukhan, Saïd exploited instability in the country - and used his knowledge of the diamond business - to get his hands on the diamond mines in the east of the country, particularly in Bria and Nzako. "As such, he was an important part of the FPRC's funding system," she says.

He continued his career as a professional rebel. Saïd is considered one of the leaders of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), a new alliance of armed groups that emerged during an election campaign in mid-December 2020, after former CAR president and war crimes suspect François Bozizé was excluded from the presidential race.

Denouncing the peace agreement of February 6, 2019, the CPC - which includes six of the largest armed groups (including the FPRC) that were formerly enemies - threatened to take Bangui and severely disrupted the presidential and legislative elections of December 27. (Half of Central Africans were unable to vote freely.) According to Nathalia Dukhan, Saïd was "one of the orchestrators of the CPC's attacks on Nzako and Bakouma".

In a statement on the situation in CAR on January 23, the UN Security Council warned CPC members, and "stressed the urgent need to end impunity in the Central African Republic and bring to justice those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law”.  The arrest and transfer to The Hague of Mahamat Saïd thus adds to pressure from the international community.

This is a clear message to the CPC leadership, including Bozizé, who has officially given his support to this coalition although he denies being behind its creation. Chantal Daniels, international cooperation advisor at the ICC prosecutor's office, recalls that the arrest warrant dates from January 2019. But she says "the timing of his arrest will be a strong signal for the CPC coalition, as in the other cases we are following. All those who commit crimes will be held accountable to justice.”

Special Court overshadowed

This is also an opportunity for the ICC Prosecutor's office to "rebalance" its Central African cases. Saïd's arrest comes after the arrests in 2019 of Alfred "Rombhot" Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, two leaders of the "Antibalaka", an armed group created in 2013 to oppose the Seléka. Of course, the Court doesn’t officially recognize the need to practice such "balance" but Daniels points out that Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda "has always insisted on working on both sides. There are now two cases in The Hague on the Antibalaka, one on the Seleka, and we are continuing our investigations in the Central African Republic”.

But then why send Mahamat Saïd to The Hague, when he could have been tried by the Special Criminal Court (SCC), a mixed tribunal created in 2015 that still hasn't opened a trial? The division of roles between the ICC, the SCC and the ordinary courts in the prosecution of war crimes in the Central African Republic remains opaque. Daniels points out that the ICC's investigation of Saïd dates back to September 2014, before the establishment of the SCC. According to the principle of complementarity, if a national judicial authority conducts a serious investigation on the same person and for the same facts, it has priority over the ICC. "We are a court of last resort," confirms Chantal Daniels, "we cannot prosecute people who are already being prosecuted in the Central African Republic, but our arrest warrant is always shared with the Central African authorities in charge of the arrests." Daniels says there is no sharing of files between the ICC and the SCC. "I know there are a lot of rumours about this, but that's not how it works," continued the Prosecutor's adviser. So can there be investigations by both jurisdictions on the same person? "Maybe," admits Daniels, "we're in contact to prevent duplication, but we're clearly not aware of all the people they're targeting. And vice versa.”