THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A suspected senior official of a predominantly Muslim rebel group that ousted the president of the Central African Republic in 2013 pleaded not guilty on Monday to seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
A court spokesperson said the opening of Mahamat Said’s trial marked the end of a long wait for justice for victims in the mineral-rich but impoverished Central African Republic.
The people of the country “have already waited a long time. It’s been almost nine years now,” spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told The Associated Press.
After a court officer read the charges, including torture, unlawful imprisonment and persecution, Said told a three-judge panel, “I listened to everything and I plead not guilty.”
Said, 52, is accused of running a detention center in the capital, Bangui, called the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry, from April to August 2013, where he and dozens of Seleka rebels allegedly detained prisoners perceived as supporters of ex-president François. Bozizé in inhumane conditions and subjected them to torture and brutal interrogations, including whipping and beating them with truncheons and rifle butts.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, told judges his team would prove Said’s guilt in a trial that is expected to last months.
“By the end of this trial, you will be satisfied that Mr. Said will be found guilty on all seven counts,” Khan said.
He said Said was “not a passive bystander” but an active participant in the crimes, tracking down civilians and bringing them to the detention center “knowing exactly what he had planned for them, what a nightmare awaited them under his control. and his guard”.
Defense attorneys are due to make an opening statement after prosecutors are finished.
Fighting in Bangui in 2013 between Seleka rebels, who seized power from Bozizé, and a predominantly Christian militia called the anti-Balaka left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The Hague-based court also detained two alleged anti-Balaka commanders, Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, who are being tried together.
“For 10 horrific months, the Seleka ruled Bangui,” Khan said. “To say that they governed would be an abuse of the English language. They ruled by diktat, by fear, by terror.
Khan said the name of the detention center was a misnomer.
“It was not an office to repress banditry. It was not a place to assess criminal conduct,” he said. “It was a torture center designed as such to sow terror, hardship and pain.
He told judges that witnesses in the case would include survivors and witnesses of torture, including “insider” witnesses who worked with Said.
Khan showed a photo of a young man tied up in a torture method used at the camp. The image showed deep lacerations in the man’s arms.
“Years later, it is all too obvious. Scarred for life because the prosecution alleges Mr Said failed to intervene, protect, lift a finger or use one iota of his authority to alleviate their suffering. On the contrary, he deliberately exacerbated it in every possible way.