The freeing from detention of war crimes suspect Hassan Bouba Ali in total disregard of the orders of the Special Criminal Court sitting in Bangui raises serious questions about the fate of justice and accountability in the Central African Republic.
Hassan Bouba, Minister of Livestock and Animal Health, was arrested and charged on Friday, November 19, with war crimes and crimes against humanity before the Special Criminal Court (SCC), which later issued a press statement saying the Investigating Chamber had placed him in pre-trial detention for five working days. He was detained at a military camp outside Bangui.
He was expected to be brought back before the court on Friday, November 26, but reports say he was freed by national government gendarmes and escorted to his house. The AFP news agency reported that the security team which had been detailed to escort him to the court was prevented from getting access to him.
The court’s condemnation of the challenge to its authority and legitimacy, as well as the assault on the rule of law underlines the precariousness of the struggle for transitional justice in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The SCC was reported to have denounced the release of Bouba as “interference with justice” and an attack on the independence of the judiciary. It asked for the support of the CAR government in the execution of its orders.
Right from the beginning, there were indications that there could be trouble as Bouba’s arrest was shrouded in secrecy. He was picked up from his office and quickly charged, but the SCC announced the developments after three days, without giving the details of the charges he faced. A security source claimed the operation was kept quiet to prevent the minister from fleeing.
The arrest was carried out by Central African Republic security forces, who executed a court order signed by investigating judges Michel Ngokpou and Adelaide Dembele.
At the time, the bold action by the court was seen as an important step for justice as it showed that it was not intimidated by his position in government.
“Bouba’s arrest sends a strong message that even the most powerful can find themselves subject to the reach of the law and gives hope to the many victims of UPC crimes that they may one day see justice,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The Bouba case is the latest in the list of challenges that the SCC is facing, and which are likely to affect its future operations. One problem is funding. The court relies on voluntary donations from the international community. It will need to score some wins to stay on donors’ radars, and the undermining of its authority will certainly not help the court’s cause.
Like most international courts and tribunals, the SCC has encountered the problem of inordinate delays before the results of its work – in the form of prosecutions and convictions – can be publicly seen. The SCC suffers the added disadvantage of having a finite lifespan of 10 years, six of which have already elapsed before it even starts its first trial. Although the delays have been caused by circumstances beyond its control – such as the inevitable slow pace of setting up and staffing a new court, and the Covid- 19 pandemic, which wreaked havoc on the court’s activities for all of 2020 and most of 2021 – this added attack on its authority is bound to affect the court’s work.
The continuing violence in the country for most of the time the court has been in existence has also contributed to delays in investigations, which are essential to the starting of prosecutions.
Bouba was a leader of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a rebel group that emerged out of the fractured Seleka coalition. He was Number Two in the armed group, which has been accused of committing serious crimes, including the November 2018 attack on a camp of internally displaced people near Alindao in the central part of the country, which resulted in the deaths of 112 people, including 19 children. UPC leader Ali Darassa and Bouba have been accused of ordering the massacre.
The minister was a special adviser of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who came to power in 2016. His government was integrating rebel figures in a bid to weaken the opposition by dividing it through the defection of its members. Bouba held a diplomatic passport and acted as an intermediary between UPC and the government. He was named minister in December 2020.
The UPC has been accused of committing serious abuses in the Ouaka province in 2014, before it split from the rebel Seleka faction. From 2014 to 2017, Human Rights Watch documented at least 246 civilians killed, dozens of cases of rape and sexual violence, and 2,046 homes burned down by the UPC. In 2017 the group started to expand into the Basse-Kotto and Mbomou provinces, where its war with Anti-Balaka fighters killed at least 188 civilians,
Bouba was said to have been expelled from the rebel group in January 2021, after a surge in violence in the country in a new rebellion.
The SCC is a hybrid international tribunal with the mandate to try individuals accused of “serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law”, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the Central African Republic (CAR) from January 1, 2003.
It is located in the capital Bangui and although it held its inaugural session on October 22, 2018, it has yet to hear its first case. It was set up as a response to a vicious conflict that raged from late 2012 to 2014 between the Seleka armed group, the CAR government, and the Anti-Balaka armed forces. The fighting prompted the United Nations Security Council to establish a peacekeeping force in the country in April 2014.
The court was the result of a memorandum of understanding between the United Nations and the then-transitional government of CAR in August 2014. The court’s statute was adopted by transitional President Catherine Samba-Panza in June 2015, and its rules of procedure and evidence adopted in July 2018. On December 4, 2018, the SCC published its investigation and prosecution strategy, after which investigations formally began.
The court is staffed by both international and national judges and prosecutors, and benefits from international assistance.
Substitute Prosecutor Alain Tolmo announced on September 8, 2021 that the SCC would begin its first trials before the end of the year. It is not clear what case it will begin with, but the court has said it has multiple matters under investigation. Sources have indicated that the court has 21 suspects in custody, three of whom were arrested after the massacre of 46 civilians near Paoua, in the north of the country, in May 2019.
Before Bouba, one of the most famous suspects before the SCC was Captain Eugène Ngaïkosset, also known as the “The Butcher of Paoua”. He was charged with crimes against humanity on September 10, 2021.
The court has a tight schedule as it has limited time to complete its work. The countdown on its five-year mandate started on the date of its inaugural hearing, in October 2018. The mandate may be renewed only once, for a maximum of 10 years.