, BANGUI, October 2- The system of justice in the strife-torn Central African Republic is so battered by neglect and a funds crunch that police, prosecutors and courts are helpless in tackling “endless” atrocities.
Human rights abuses against civilians by mainly Muslim former rebels and vengeful militias from the Christian majority have claimed thousands of lives since March 2013 and displaced more than a quarter of the population of 4.6 million.
Foreign military intervention quelled fears of a potential genocide, but the transitional government in Bangui has turned to the International Criminal Court for help in tackling what ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called an “endless” list of alleged crimes against humanity.
The collapse of the judicial system predates the latest conflict in a poor, landlocked nation long prone to coups, rebellions, army mutinies and civil protest.
Down the decades, buildings have gone to ruin, equipment has been wasted and manpower has become pitifully short.
Peacekeepers were sent by the United Nations in September to join forces already deployed by the African Union, France and the European Union in a bid to stem the violence and keep order. Some troops on the ground are being incorporated into the UN mission known as MINUSCA.
In The Hague last week, the ICC announced a full probe into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes on a vast scale, following an initial assessment.
‘List of atrocities is endless’
“The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that both the (mainly Muslim) Seleka and the (largely Christian) anti-balaka groups have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder, rape, forced displacement, persecution, pillaging, attacks against humanitarian missions and the use of children under 15 in combat,” Bensouda said on September 24.
“The list of atrocities is endless. I cannot ignore these alleged crimes.”
The CAR’s entire prosecution service consists of about 200 examining magistrates assisted by some 350 clerical staff, according to a justice ministry source.
“Many posts have not been filled and we see that a certain number of people are quitting their jobs. The general impression is a situation of warped justice incapable of really playing its role,” the source added.
The justice department’s budget of 1.5 billion CFA francs (2.3 million euros / $3 million) does not even pay for upkeep of courtrooms and jails across the former French colony.
In theory, there are about 50 prisons in the CAR. In practice, about 30 remain because others in the provinces have tumbled down. In places, private homes have been turned into temporary jails.
Jailbreaks are frequent. More than 700 inmates are estimated to escape every year.
“Most members of the ex-Seleka or anti-balaka militias belong only behind bars, because they are detainees who were convicted yet are still free because of the crisis,” said an army officer who once ran the central prison in Bangui but asked not to be named.
– Poisoned lives –
Many convicted criminals took advantage of chaos to join armed groups after the downfall of the regime of Francois Bozize, a former army chief who seized power in a March 2003 coup but was ousted 10 years later by the Seleka alliance.
“We do everything we can in daily life not to run into them by being ever watchful,” a prosecutor said bitterly. “Above all, we’re not protected or armed and it’s difficult to tell beforehand who is armed and who isn’t.”
In November 2013, the head of judicial services, Modeste Martineau Bria, was murdered in the street by men held to be former Seleka rebels who wanted to steal his car. Several sources said his killers were convicts who had joined the rebels.
The lives of Bangui residents are poisoned by frequent assaults, hold-ups and disappearances. Policemen are often nowhere in sight since they are as scared as prosecutors.
While the transitional government has turned to the ICC in hope of ending the impunity enjoyed by killers, the authorities must for now count on the United Nations for many police duties.
MINUSCA, which started to deploy on September 15, currently includes about 1,000 international police officers, out of a total planned strength of 1,800. The UN police jointly patrol Bangui with CAR contingents.
“If somebody commits acts against the laws of the CAR, we’ll go to work and help the defence and security forces to render justice,” MINUSCA police commissioner Luis Carrilho said this week.
“Somebody caught in the act should be arrested automatically. And the penal system does its work with the prosecutor at the first level. The rest will fall into place.”