CAR: Urgent need to rebuild justice system as war crime suspects roam free

Released 11 January 2017 00.01 GMT
Individuals suspected of committing war crimes including killing and rape during the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) are evading investigation and arrest, and in some cases live side by side with their victims, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
The organization is calling for major investment to rebuild the country’s justice system and establish the Special Criminal Court (SCC) to help bring perpetrators to account.
“Thousands of victims of human rights abuses across CAR are still waiting for justice to be served, while individuals who have committed horrific crimes like murder and rape roam free. This is impunity on a staggering scale, and it is undermining efforts to rebuild CAR and create a sustainable peace,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International Central Africa Researcher. 
“The only long-term solution to this entrenched impunity is the comprehensive overhaul of CAR’s national justice system, including by rebuilding its courts, prisons and police force. In the meantime, sustainable funding for the Special Criminal Court, including robust witness protection programmes, is an essential step towards justice.”
The long wait for justice: Accountability in Central African Republic highlights how dozens of people suspected of having committed crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses have avoided effective investigation and arrest. Efforts to ensure accountability have been hampered by a lack of capacity both within CAR’s government and the UN peacekeeping force in the country.
The justice system in CAR, which was weak before the conflict, was further undermined by the fighting as records were destroyed and legal personnel were forced to flee. There are few functioning courts outside of the capital Bangui, and just eight out of 35 prisons in the country are functional. Detainees are kept in crumbling buildings in crowded and insanitary conditions. Poor security has led to repeated prison breaks.
A national recovery and peacebuilding plan presented to a conference of international donors in Brussels in November 2016 requested US $105 million over five years to strengthen the domestic justice system and operationalize the SCC.
A member of civil society in Bangui told Amnesty International:
“They [suspected perpetrators] live side by side with their victims. They take the same taxis, shop in the same shops, and live in the same neighborhood. None have been arrested or prosecuted, and such a climate of impunity only reassures the perpetrators.”
The UN peacekeeping force in CAR helped national authorities arrest 384 people for crimes linked to the conflict between September 2014 and October 2016. However, this includes only a handful of high-profile individuals suspected of having committed the most serious crimes, while 130 escaped from prison in September 2015.
This impunity has contributed to a rise in violence since September 2016, including one attack in Kaga-Bandoro in October, in which ex-Seleka fighters killed at least 37 civilians, wounded a further 60 and forced more than 20,000 people to flee their homes.
Recommendations for the Special Criminal Court (SCC)
Important progress has been made in recent months in establishing the SCC, a ‘hybrid’ court of national and international judges and staff that will try individuals suspected of having committed crimes under international law during the conflict.
However, Amnesty International’s report makes key recommendations to make sure that the SCC is set up as rapidly as possible in a way that ensures effective investigations and fair trials.
While $5 million of the $7 million required for the first 14 months of operations has been secured, more needs to be done to ensure sustainable support for the first five years of the court’s operation. Donor countries should also help by nominating qualified judges and other legal staff during current and future recruitments.
“The SCC is essential to ensure that victims of some of the conflict’s most serious crimes will have a chance to see justice done in CAR, and should be given every support,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi. 
“It is also vital that a robust victim and witness protection programme is developed to ensure their safe participation in the proceedings. Defendants must also have the right to all safeguards ensuring a fair trial, including legal aid. It is time to put an end to the climate of fear that has enveloped CAR for too long.”
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Amnesty International’s report is based on dozens of interviews with people involved in the domestic justice sector in CAR, including magistrates and prosecutors, members and advisors to the Minister of Justice, the president of the CAR Bar Association, and lawyers.
The organization also interviewed victims of human rights abuses and crimes under international law. Information obtained through the interviews was corroborated with information and data from other sources, including court documents, a range of reports produced on the justice sector and other political, social and humanitarian issues in CAR.
In July 2014 Amnesty International named 21 individuals reasonably suspected to have committed crimes under international law, only two have been arrested to date and the organization is unaware of effective investigations into the others.