Journalist arrested; UN experts denounce abuses by private military contractors

A member of the Anti-Balaka armed militia walks next to UN peacekeeping soldiers in the village of Makunzi Wali, Central African Republic, April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner via GalloImages

General 

UN experts: human rights abuses by private military contractors

In March 2021, United Nations experts, including experts of the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, expressed their concern at the increasing use of private military and foreign security contractors by the CAR's government, saying they received and continue to receive reports of grave human rights abuses, such as summary executions, arbitrary detentions and torture during detention, committed by private security personnel working jointly with CAR's armed forces and in some instances UN peacekeepers. They further stated they were "deeply disturbed by the interconnected roles of Sewa Security Services, Russian-owned Lobaye Invest SARLU, and a Russian-based organisation popularly known as the Wagner Group. In particular, they expressed concerns about their connections to a series of violent attacks that have occurred since the presidential elections on 27th December 2020". 

Authorities in CAR responded by setting up a Special Commission of Inquiry into the allegations. In October 2021, conclusions of the Commission were made public through a press conference. The Commission attributes the majority of abuses to rebels of the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement (CPC), a new rebel coalition created in December 2020 in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections, while acknowledging that "Russian instructors" and members of the CAR armed forces had also committed abuses. 

In a later statement on 27th October 2021, the UN experts further said that civilians, including journalists and aid workers, have been violently harassed and intimidated by the so-called "Russian instructors" from the Wagner Group, and called on CAR authorities to end all relationships with private military and security companies, in particular the Wagner Group. 

Accountability and justice for war crimes in 2021

On 17th December 2021, CAR's Special Criminal Court (SCC), a UN-backed hybrid court mandated with investigating and prosecuting serious human rights violations since 2003 and inaugurated in October 2018, announced that it will send its first case to trial. Suspects Issa Sallet Adoum, Ousman Yaouba and Tahir Mahamat will be tried for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Koundjili and Lemouna, northwest Central African Republic, in May 2019. In those localities, dozens of people were executed, reportedly by members of the armed group Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) just months after 3R's leaders signed a peace accord.

In the report "One step forward, two steps backwards. Justice in the Central African Republic", human rights group Amnesty International gives an overview of developments in 2021 related to accountability and justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war-torn country. According to Amnesty, the SCC is facing several serious difficulties, including its arrest warrants not being carried out. At least 25 people are subject to an arrest warrant by the SCC, but neither the CAR police force nor MINUSCA, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in CAR, are making these arrests. In addition, 22 individuals are currently in pre-trial detention on the order of the SCC. Ordinary criminal courts have stopped their criminal sessions for over 20 months. According to Amnesty:

"Very few alleged war criminals have been arrested, prosecuted or tried for the numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country in the past two decades. The Special Criminal Court, a UN-sponsored hybrid tribunal, is hitting serious difficulties to fulfil its mandate."

Meanwhile, at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the trial against anti-Balaka leaders Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona for war crimes and crimes against humanity opened in February 2021, while former Selaka leader Mahamat Said Abdel Kani was handed over to the ICC in January 2021. In December 2021, the ICC confirmed that the latter will go on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission was officially launched in July 2021, but lacks budget and facilities while much of the country's territory remains under the control of armed groups, according to observers at JusticeInfo.net. 

Expression

Journalist arrested 

On 4th October 2021, police and military officers arrested journalist Landry Ulrich Nguéma Ngokpélé, director of publications for the newspaper Le Quotidien de Bangui. The journalist relayed, through his wife, to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he faces prosecution for alleged complicity with the rebel group Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), criminal association, defamation, insult, and slanderous denunciation. According to court documents, that CPJ reviewed, the defamation and insult charges relate to publications shared by the journalist on social media that reportedly defame the Minister in charge of the government's general secretariat Maxime Balalou by calling him “a corrupt minister, manipulated by a gang of Libyan mafia". 

The journalist was previously detained on 3rd June 2021, following a defamation complaint by Harouna Douamba, the leader of the non-governmental organisation Aimons Notre Afrique. According to CPJ, who reviewed the court documents, the complaint relates to an article published in 2018 alleging that Douamba had swindled government authorities. Nguéma Ngokpélé was taken to Ngaragba Central Prison, held overnight and provisionally released the following day. CPJ further said that the journalist was arrested when he appeared before the Bangui prosecutor’s office in relation to another defamation case in relation to Le Quotidien de Bangui's article alleging corruption by CAR's minister of water, forestry, hunting, and fishing. 

Access to two news websites blocked

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on 16th February 2021 CAR's Minister of Posts and Telecommunications ordered internet providers to block access to two news websites - Corbeau News and Le Tsunami - "until further notice". Although no specific posts or articles were mentioned, the Ministry said the two news sites had spread “hate speech” and fake news amid a “security crisis". The president of CAR's national media regulator, the High Council for Communication (HCC), the institution responsible for regulation of the media and the only institution empowered to make such a decision, told RSF that they were not consulted and learned of the decision "on the street like everyone else in the CAR”.

Editor of Corbeau News Alain Nzilo told RSF that he believed that the aim of the blocking of the news site was to prevent it from publishing sensitive information, in particular on mercenaries working for private Russian security company Wagner. Edouard Yamalet, editor of Le Tsunami, believes that Russian officials are responsible for blocking the news site, after Le Tsunami published articles on possible war crimes committed by Wagner mercenaries.