CAR war crimes suspect 'Rambo' was tortured: lawyer

2018-11-23 18:41
The exterior of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. (iStock)

The exterior of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. (iStock)

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A former militia leader from the Central African Republic known as "Colonel Rambo" was tortured in detention before his transfer to The Hague on war crimes charges, his lawyer said on Friday.

The arrest of Alfred Yekatom, who made his first appearance at the International Criminal Court since his extradition, was "brutal" and he was later beaten with rifle butts, his defence said.

Yekatom, 43, was arrested in October in Bangui and sent on Saturday to the Netherlands for his role in bloody unrest in the CAR pitting Christian and Muslim groups against each other since 2013.

"The arrest was, according to him, brutal," lawyer Xavier-Jean Keita told the court.

"He was tortured, he says, he was beaten with Kalashnikovs and rifle butts, and he still has visible signs of the beating," the lawyer added.

"The medical team at the ICC detention centre has observed this."

An elected MP since 2016, Yekatom was arrested after he drew his gun and fired into the air in the parliament in Bangui, the capital, during an altercation late last month.

He faces 14 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, mutilation, torture, cruel treatment and recruiting child soldiers into his so-called anti-Balaka militia group.

The group is accused of attacks on Muslims between December 2013 and August 2014.

Yekatom said the first he had known about the war crimes charges was when he arrived in The Hague.

"No one said anything to me, I was at parliament and there was a bit of trouble there. Then they arrested me and sent me here," the ex-fighter, wearing a suit and listening to a translation of the proceedings on headphones, told the court.

"When I got here on Sunday I was given some documents and I read the charges. No one said anything to me there, it was only here that I was told."

 'Violent acts' 

Yekatom's lawyer added that his "fundamental rights had been violated" because he had been denied access to a judge in the CAR, and the first time he had seen a lawyer was on Monday at the ICC.

The court will hold an official hearing to confirm the charges on April 30 2019, Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua said.

The judge said he could not immediately deal with the allegations of torture.

"You have raised a very important problem and we cannot deal with it orally. We have to have written submissions, at this stage we cannot discuss this question, nor resolve it."

Yekatom's transfer is the first since the ICC's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a probe in 2014 into the deadly violence that has left thousands dead and forced more than a quarter of the population out of their homes, according to UN figures.

One of the world's poorest nations despite a rich supply of diamonds and uranium, CAR has struggled to recover from a 2013 civil war that erupted when President Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels.

In response, Christians, who account for about 80% of the population, organised vigilante units dubbed "anti-Balaka" in reference to the balaka machetes used by Seleka rebels.

Yekatom had been in prosecutors' sights since 2015 for "engaging in or providing support for acts that undermine the peace, stability or security in the CAR", his ICC arrest warrant said.

Yekatom was wanted in particular for leading an attack in Bangui on December 5, 2013, when his group armed with guns, grenades and machetes, attacked Muslims in Boeing district, killing between six to 13 civilians.

The group then moved to another location where four Muslims were killed, prosecutors said.

The arrest warrant said the shooting incident in parliament showed "that he resorts to violent acts" and that his arrest was necessary "to prevent him from committing further crimes within the jurisdiction of the court."

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