December 2, 2021
HUMAN rights groups in Central African Republic have been taken by surprise following the unexpected release from detention of Hassan Bouba, the country’s Minister of Livestock and Animal Health, who was being held on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
Bouba was arrested on November 19 and was expected to appear before the country’s Special Criminal Court (SCC) on November 26.
But he was mysteriously released from detention in defiance of the court’s orders and escorted home by national gendarmes.
A press release by the SCC confirmed that Bouba was taken from the Camp de Roux prison where he was detained by the gendarmes.
Human rights activists in the country were expecting Bouba, a leader of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a rebel group that has been accused of atrocities, to face trial.
“The UPC is responsible for many serious crimes in the Central African Republic since 2014,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“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.”
He continued: “The Special Criminal Court is playing a vital role in helping to puncture pervasive impunity in the Central African Republic
“When Bouba was promoted to minister many felt it could be yet another example of how it can pay to commit serious crimes in the Central African Republic.”
Mudge said then that Bouba’s arrest was a “warning to other suspects in positions of power that the reign of impunity in the country may be running short”.
Now human rights groups are calling on the CAR government to coordinate with UN peacekeepers to ensure that Bouba is returned to custody.
“If the Central African Republic wants to address impunity for atrocities, the government needs to support the Special Criminal Court and Bouba’s immediate re-arrest,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“Allowing Bouba to be released in defiance of the Special Criminal Court’s orders undermines efforts to advance justice and increases the possibility that he could flee. “International partners…should insist the court’s orders are followed and that Bouba is taken back into custody as soon as possible, to face due process.”
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 slavery, and 2,046 homes burned by the UPC in the Ouaka province. In 2017 the UPC started to expand into the Basse-Kotto and Mbomou provinces.
Bouba was expelled from the rebel group in January, after a surge in violence in the country when a new rebellion, of which the UPC was a member, began in December 2020.
He was arrested at his office on November 19.
The SCC issued a press release on November 22, saying that Bouba had been arrested, but it did not include any details on the crimes against humanity and war crimes that were alleged.
Bouba’s charges come two months after another high-profile arrest by the SCC. Capt. Eugène Ngaïkosset – known within the country as “The Butcher of Paoua” – whose arrest was confirmed on September 4, is charged with crimes against humanity.
Ngaïkosset led a presidential guard unit implicated in numerous crimes, including the killing of at least dozens of civilians and the burning of thousands of homes in the country’s northwest and northeast between 2005 and 2007.
Bouba is regarded as having moved up to the number two position in the UPC in October 2015 after his predecessor, Hamat Nejad, was killed in an ambush in Bangui.
Human Rights Watch spoke and met with Bouba several times between 2015 and 2021, and shared research the organisation had conducted on crimes that were committed by the UPC.
The UPC lobbied for a general amnesty during 18 months of peace talks negotiated by the African Union.
The peace accord, finalised in Khartoum in February 2019, is vague on steps needed to ensure post-conflict justice and did not mention specific judicial processes, but it recognised the role impunity played in entrenching violence.
While the accord did not mention amnesty, Bouba told Human Rights Watch in February 2019 that for the UPC, the peace deal means a general amnesty.
“If the government arrests a member of an armed group, then there is no more accord,” he said.
On September 8 the SCC’s substitute prosecutor, Alain Tolmo, announced that the court intended to begin its first trials before the end of the year, and that the court had multiple cases under investigation.
The court, based in Bangui, was established to help limit widespread impunity for serious crimes in CAR.
It is staffed by both international and national judges and prosecutors, and benefits from international assistance.
The SCC’s judicial efforts operate in tandem with International Criminal Court investigations and prosecutions of serious crimes committed in the country, along with some cases dealing with lesser conflict-related crimes before the country’s ordinary criminal courts.
It has the authority to try grave crimes committed during the country’s armed conflicts since 2003.
Internationally accepted standards for fair trials, including the presumption of innocence and the requirement that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, are enshrined in the court’s rules of procedure and evidence.
The law to establish the court was adopted in 2015, but the court did not officially begin operations until 2018.
The SCC was established after national consultations in 2015, known as the Bangui Forum, had prioritised justice, and stated that “no amnesty” would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes.
The court is facing funding problems and needs further support to continue to advance its important work, according to Human Rights Watch said.
Human rights organisations wrote to members of the US Congress on November 18 calling for a renewal of the US government’s $3 million contribution to the court this year.