Former Séléka commander Mahamat Said Abdel Kani has pleaded not guilty to charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.
He appeared before Trial Chamber VI’s Judge Miatta Maria Samba (presiding), Judge Socorro Flores Liera, and Judge Sergio Gerardo Ugalde Godínez on Monday, September 26, 2022, at the opening of his trial in which he is facing seven charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Bangui, Central Africa Republic (CAR), in 2013.
Kani was represented by Jennifer Naouri, who made her opening statement on the second day of the trial.
She told the court that ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s opening remarks are a misrepresentation of the evidence and an attempt to cover up the witnesses.
“The prosecution has built its case on a biased and sketchy narrative very far from the reality of what actually happened in CAR at the time,” said Naouri.
She told the judges that the prosecution is bringing incomplete evidence before the chamber, “evidence that has not been corroborated, evidence full of hearsay, evidence that has not been authenticated and that is lacking in reliability. Evidence that has come out of poor investigation. In one word, weak evidence.”
She said the prosecution has chosen not to call the relevant witnesses who would shed light on what happened because it wants to avoid having its thesis contradicted.
Prosecutor Khan in his opening statement said this is the first time a senior commander of the Séléka armed group is appearing before the ICC.
Pre-Trial Chamber II partially confirmed charges against Kani on December 9, 2021, after a confirmation of charges hearing from October 12-14, 2021, and after finding that there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that the former rebel leader, being a senior member of the Séléka coalition, is criminally responsible.
The charges brought against him include imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty as a crime against humanity at the Office Central de Répression du Banditisme (Central Office for the Repression of Banditry – the OCRB) of persons perceived to be supporters of former CAR President François Bozizé between April 12, 2013, and August 30, 2013; and torture as a crime against humanity of people perceived to be Bozizé supporters, who were tied using the arbatachar method (in which a prisoner’s four limbs are tied together behind his or her back), as well as other detainees who were severely mistreated.
After the Séléka group ousted Bozizé in 2013, Khan said that Kani held a senior role at the OCRB and reported directly to the minister of security.
The Prosecutor alleged that Kani “actively participated” in hunting down people from certain ethnic groups or neighbourhoods and subjecting them “to the direst conditions that he could conjure up”.
According to Khan, under Kani’s office was a small basement – the hole where he detained victims in the most degrading conditions. “No water, no food, their humanity eviscerated, they remained cut off from the protection of the law.”
The Prosecutor told the court that Kani oversaw the prison in the county’s capital, Bangui, and showed the court a video of the detention compound, including the said hole underneath the office, where prisoners were kept in “putrid conditions”.
Khan said the crimes were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack accounting for crimes against humanity, adding that Kani knew his conduct formed part of that wider attack.
The legal representative of the victims, Sarah Pellet, said the victims’ hope was that the trial will guarantee that never again will such crimes be committed.
She told the court that the process at the ICC is the only opportunity for victims to try to make sense out of what happened in 2013, almost 10 years after the events that victimised them.
The trial was streamed live from the ICC courtroom in The Hague to Bangui, CAR. Some 300 people, including religious leaders, civil society groups, victims’ representatives, and the media, gathered in a hall to follow the trial.
As a commander of the Séléka, Kani used members of the local population, known as indicateurs, to identify the houses of perceived supporters of former President Bozizé, such as retired military men, gendarmes, policemen, civil servants, or relatives. Notably, Muslims and Muslim houses were spared.
The Séléka targeted the civilian population based on religious grounds and Christians were considered supporters of the former government.
The government of CAR referred the situation to the ICC on May 30, 2014, saying it had persisted since August 1, 2012. Kani was surrendered to the ICC by the authorities on January 24, 2021, on account of an ICC warrant of arrest issued on January 7, 2019. His initial appearance before the court took place on January 28 and 29, 2021.
Apart from Kani, Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, members of the rival Anti-Balaka (pro-Christian militias) are also before the ICC. Both cases arise from the situation in the Central African Republic. Yekatom was surrendered to the ICC on November 17, 2018, while Ngaïssona was arrested by the authorities of the French Republic on December 12, 2018, and transferred to the ICC Detention Centre on January 23, 2019. Their cases were joined on February 20, 2019, and the presentation of the testimonies of prosecution witnesses has been going on since November 4, 2021.