Suspected militia leaders plead not guilty to Central African Republic war crimes

War crimes suspect Alfred Yekatom, also known as ‘Rambo’. [Reuters]

Two men accused of leading Christian-dominated militias in widespread attacks on Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) on Tuesday rejected all charges against them at the start of their trial at the International Criminal Court.

Alfred Yekatom, a former militia commander also known as “Rambo”, and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, a former African soccer executive whom prosecutors say was a senior leader of the so-called anti-Balaka militias in 2013 and 2014, pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes.

“I do not recognize myself at all in the charges against me, I am not guilty,” Yekatom, 46, said.

Ngaissona, 53, has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and torture.

Prosecutors said Ngaissona was an integral part of the anti-Balaka movement.

“He knew the group he was helping to arm, finance, instruct and organise, known by September 2013 as the anti-Balaka, would inevitably target the Muslim civilian population of western CAR. He knew the vengeance within them,” prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye told the court.

Yekatom faces similar charges to Ngaissona along with additional ones for his alleged use of child soldiers.

The Central African Republic has been mired in violence since a coalition of mostly northern and predominantly Muslim rebels known as “Seleka”, or “alliance” in the Sango language, seized power in March, 2013. Their brutal rule gave rise to the opposing anti-Balaka Christian militias.

After initial criticism that its investigation into the CAR was one-sided, with only anti-Balaka leaders in the dock, the ICC in January announced it had detained alleged Seleka leader Mahamat Said Abdel Kain.

The trial begins against a backdrop of fighting between the CAR army, backed by United Nations, Russian and Rwandan troops, and rebels from both militia groups who have formed an alliance with the aim of seizing the capital and overturning a Dec. 27 vote in which President Faustin-Archange Touadera was declared the winner.

The CAR government on Feb. 5 extended a state of emergency for six months amid the continuing hostilities.