By Sophie van Leeuwen
A prosecutor in the Central African Republic is risking his life. Warlords had been controlling the streets, and some of them are still refusing to surrender to justice. A new Special Criminal Court may help end impunity in the CAR.
“I was working in my office when they came,” remembers prosecutor Ghislain Gresenguet. “Armed men entered the building. They were violent. They took the chief registrar with them and pushed him into their car. Thank God they did not shoot. The armed men did not see me in the office.”
Chasing warlords in the CAR is a very difficult job. As a prosecutor at the High Court of Justice in the capital of Bangui, it’s almost impossible to get justice. Also, Gresenguet is traumatised.
“How can you arrest and judge war criminals who control the streets with their armed groups?” he sighs. One of his colleagues got killed. “Is it worth staying in this country? With all those risks? I have asked myself that question many times.”
“The perpetrators are very often the same. We know them all,” says Africa director Florent Geel of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “The actors of crime are dangerous because they are untouchable. They have a lot of power. Justice often lets them go. For so many years, impunity has been institutionalised. People don’t trust justice.”
That’s why the CAR is getting its own – hybrid – Special Criminal Court (SCC). Last week, on April 22, a majority of the transitional parliament voted to create the court. It will consist of local and international personnel, like for example 14 local judges, 13 international judges.
“We need jurisprudence”, says prosecutor Gresenguet. “We need justice for the victims who have lost their families and their houses.” Three civil wars have ravished the country and destroyed the lives of many. “They are left with nothing.”
Since 2013, rebels of the Seleka coalition, largely from northern CAR, started killing civilians. Anti-Balaka fought back and targeted those who might support the Seleka, mostly Moslems. Thousands of people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have had to flee.
The new court will get financial and logistical support from the UN mission MINUSCA, which started in 2014. It will cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the CAR since 2003.
Risk of violence
This is the first – partly – international court in an ongoing conflict, says Geel. “Of course there’s a risk of violence and countermeasures. The more suspects are arrested, the more dangerous it will get. But it’s an opportunity. By taking a violent actor out of the game, you bring down the levels of violence.”
Gresenguet has faith in the UN mission. “I now have a MINUSCA guard. Also the law court is secured. But we’ll have to take control over the whole country, not only in the capital of Bangui.”
Lead image: UN peacekeepers patrolling the streets of the CAR capital, Bangui (Photo: Pacome Pabandji/AFP)