Court Examines Alleged Abuses in Central African Republic

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The International Criminal Court's prosecutor launched an investigation Tuesday into complaints of rape, sexual cruelty and other abuses committed in the Central African Republic, notably in 2002 and 2003, a period of intense fighting between government and rebel forces.

"We will conduct our own independent investigation, gather evidence, and prosecute individuals who are most responsible," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement issued Tuesday at court headquarters in The Hague. "Civilians were killed and raped; and homes and stores were looted."

A distinctive feature of this investigation is the high number of sexual assault and cruelty cases, which far outnumber alleged killings. At least 600 people were raped in a five-month period, the court believes.

It is the fourth official investigation that the court, which specializes in war crimes, has launched since its formation in 2002. It also has proceedings in Sierra Leone, northern Uganda and Sudan.

The court received credible reports that elderly women, young girls and men were raped and in some cases gang-raped, according to a fact sheet distributed by the court electronically. In some instances, relatives were forced to watch or take part. "The social impact appears devastating, with many victims stigmatized and, reportedly for a number of them, infected with the HIV virus," the fact sheet said.

"These victims are calling for justice," Moreno-Ocampo said, adding that many of them are now shunned by their families and communities. The court will look into crimes committed during continuing hostilities in parts of the country.

The government of the Central African Republic referred the case to the court after the country's highest judicial body instituted its own criminal proceedings against deposed president Ange-Felix Patasse and several military commanders in 2004 for alleged acts committed against civilians.

The Cour de Cassation, the country's supreme court, determined that the national judicial system could not handle the complex probe required to prosecute the full scope of crimes committed during the conflict.

In October 2002, Fran├žois Bozize, then the country's army chief of staff, staged a coup against Patasse. Patasse recruited militias from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as mercenaries from Libya and Chad to defend the capital, Bangui. After extended fighting, Bozize overthrew the government in March 2003.

In May 2005, Bozize achieved a measure of legitimacy through elections. But since then, his government has been embroiled in rebellions in the northeastern and northwestern regions of the country.

The U.N. Children's Fund has been calling for urgent action to address what it called a "humanitarian disaster" in the Central African Republic. The conflict has forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes in recent years and left 40 percent of children there malnourished, according to UNICEF's country representative, Mahimbo Mdoe.

Last month, the Bozize government indicated it would support the deployment of an international force in the northeastern part of the country.

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