The alleged leaders of Central African Republic militias, one prominent in African football, heard details of war crimes accusations against them at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom, who deny wrongdoing, were attending a so-called “confirmation of charges” hearing where prosecutors outline their case. Judges will then decide if there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial.
Prosecutors say Ngaissona was one of the most senior leaders of Christian-dominated militias, while Yekatom was a commander in the same forces – known as the “anti-balaka”, which in the local Sango language implies the ability to stop enemy weapons – during fighting in 2013-2014.
The Central African Republic has been mired in violence since a coalition of mostly northern and predominantly Muslim rebels known as “Seleka”, or “alliance” in Sango, seized power in March 2013. Their brutal rule gave rise to the opposing anti-balaka militias.
Ngaissona and Yekatom were accused of participating in a plan to target Muslims thought to support the Seleka and committing crimes including persecution, murder, torture, rape, use of child soldiers and targeting civilians.
They were transferred to the court last year. At the time of his arrest Ngaissona was a member of the executive council of the African Football Federation (CAF), football’s governing body in Africa.
Ngaissona faces 111 counts while Yekatom is charged with 21 crimes.
Yekatom’s defence argued prosecutors have unfairly hampered their defence by failing to disclose most evidence related to alleged crimes committed by the Seleka.
A separate ICC investigation into alleged Seleka crimes is ongoing.
“Mister Yekatom cannot get a fair confirmation hearing because the Seleka are not here and their absence is used to withhold material from the defence,” lawyer Mylene Dimitri told the court.
Because Yekatom is charged with indiscriminate attacks on civilians, his lawyers say they need information about the Seleka to show some of the attacks he is charged over were against enemy fighters who were legitimate targets.
Central African human rights organisations present at the hearing said the trial was being followed closely in the capital Bangui, where some feel there is a double standard.
“You cannot only charge one side and leave the other side. We feel the ICC should prosecute both camps,” Mathias Morouba of the Central African OCDH rights watchdog, told Reuters.