Long-awaited C.Africa war crimes trial opens, then adjourns

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A long-awaited court set up to prosecute suspected war criminals in the Central African Republic began its maiden trial in Bangui on Monday before swiftly adjourning proceedings until May 16.

The Special Criminal Court, a hybrid body of local and foreign magistrates set up in 2015 with UN backing, has been struggling for years to get going in the face of logistical hurdles, lack of money and local hostility.

Its first trial had already been postponed from April 19 due to a lack of defence lawyers.

In the dock are three members of a powerful militia called the 3R -- Issa Sallet Adoum, Ousman Yaouba and Tahir Mahamat -- who are accused of the massacre of 46 villagers in northwest CAR in May 2019.

The three men, dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, did not wear handcuffs but were kept behind thick glass and had their backs turned to the public.

Wearing anti-Covid masks, the trio appeared impassive as the court clerk read out a long list of charges, which included murder and torture.

The court rejected a request by defence attorneys for their clients to be released on bail but accepted their request to adjourn until May 16.

"On that date, the opposing debates will be opened, questions will be put to the accused and witnesses heard," said presiding judge Aime-Pascal Delimo.

"We are all aware that time is against us," he warned.

One of the poorest and most volatile countries in the world, the CAR plunged into civil war in 2013 largely along sectarian lines.

Violence fell back in intensity in 2018 but as recently as early 2021, two-thirds of the country lay in the hands of armed groups spawned in the conflict.

President Faustin Archange Touadera is accused by France and its allies of turning to Moscow and the Russian private security company Wagner to shore up his position in exchange for a share of the CAR's mineral wealth.

The 3R (Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation) is one of the CAR's most powerful armed groups, drawn mainly from the Fulani ethnic group, also called Peuls.

The mandate of the Special Criminal Court applies to war crimes and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003.