Alleged Central African Republic rebels plead not guilty

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FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 file photo, the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona stands during his initial appearance before the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. The former head of the Central African Republic's soccer federation and an alleged rebel commander known as Rambo are going on trial Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 at the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom are accused of involvement in atrocities including murder, torture and attacking civilians in their roles as senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP, File)

THE HAGUE – Two alleged leaders of a predominantly Christian rebel group in the Central African Republic were key players in a campaign of atrocities against Muslim civilians intended to restore to power to the country's ousted president in 2013 and 2014, an International Criminal Court prosecution lawyer said Tuesday as their trial opened.

The men both pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted.

Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yekatom, a rebel leader known as Rambo, are accused of involvement in crimes including murder, torture and attacking civilians. The charges stem from their roles as senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka that engaged in bitter fighting with the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group and its perceived supporters in 2013 and 2014.

“I reject all the charges that you have laid against me,” Yekatom said. Ngaïssona told Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt: “I do not recognize myself in the charges brought against me. I am not guilty.”

The interreligious violence left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands. Mosques, shops and homes were looted and destroyed.

The trial is the first at the global court that focuses on the violence that erupted after the Seleka seized power in the Central African Republic in 2013, forcing President Francois Bozize into exile.

Prosecution lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye told the three-judge panel that 150 prosecution witnesses, including victims, experts and “insiders” will testify at the trial and prove the defendants' guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Ngaissona helped mobilize, arm and finance diverse groups into the anti-Balaka movement intended to restore Bozize to power and mete out “payback” knowing that it would target the Muslim population of western Central African Republic, Vanderpuye said.

“He knew the vengeance within them and he knew that they intended to and would commit the multiple acts and crimes” charged in the indictment. He said Yekatom “prepared, planned and led them in crimes as a key part of the anti-Balaka's widespread attack.”

The process began against a backdrop of ongoing violence in the African nation despite a two-year-old peace deal. Fighting erupted again after the constitutional court rejected Bozize’s candidacy for December’s presidential election. A coalition of the six strongest militias backing Bozize seeks to overturn results of the election in which Faustin-Archange Touadera won a second term.

The mineral-rich nation faces an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 people fleeing their homes in less than two months, according to the United Nations.

“A justice void has fueled repeated violence in the Central African Republic, with a new wave of attacks in just the past two months. Fair, credible trials of atrocities are key for the country to break these cycles,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

Ngaïssona was president of the country's soccer body for more than a decade from 2008. The sport’s international governing body, FIFA, banned him from the sport for six years and eight months in November 2019 following his arrest and publication of allegations against him.

Yekatom was surrendered to the ICC in November 2018 after being arrested for firing a gun in parliament. Ngaïssona was detained a month later in France.

The Central African Republic government asked the ICC in May 2014 to investigate crimes allegedly committed by both the Seleka and the anti-Balaka. Last month, the first alleged Seleka rebel arrested on an ICC warrant was handed to the court.

Vanderpuye said the trial “is not about an indictment of one side or another side of the conflict. There’s tragedy enough to go all around.”