Central African rebel leader pleads not guilty to war crimes at ICC hearing

© ICC-CPI

A former Central African Republic rebel commander has pleaded not guilty to the International Criminal Court at the start of his trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, an alleged member of the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group, is accused of torturing opposition supporters as the Central African Republic spiralled into violence in 2013.

The former French colony was plunged into a bloody sectarian conflict after the Seleka ousted president François Bozizé.

Said told judges at the ICC on Monday, "I have listened to everything and I plead not guilty."

The 52-year-old militia leader faces seven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"I plead not guilty to all charges and all situations," Said added.

Prosecutors believe Said was a senior Seleka commander in charge of a police compound where alleged Bozizé supporters were beaten and severely tortured after they were arrested, mainly at night.

Bloodbath

The coup against Bozizé unleashed a bloodbath between the Seleka and "anti-Balaka" forces, who were mainly Christian or animist who supported the ousted president.

ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan told court judges "Mr Said has entered not guilty pleas. That is his right.

"But the beauty of the law is that there is no place to hide ... The charges that are faced, are really quite awful."

Sometimes referred to as "colonel", Said reportedly oversaw day-to-day operations at the compound which belonged to a police unit called the "Central Office for the Repression of Banditry" or OCRB.

"His voice determined the fates of so many individuals," the prosecutor added on Monday.

He didn't protect them, but rather, he actively participated in their capture, hunting them down and subjecting them to the most dire conditions that he could conjure up."

'Grotesque abuse'

Said allegedly instructed subordinates to mistreat detainees, subjecting them to the so-called "arbatachar" torture method to extract confessions.

The prosecutor showed pictures in court of victims' bodies tortured this way – a technique involving tying a person's elbows to their feet behind their backs, causing excruciating pain.

Many victims experienced partial or temporary paralysis and numbness.

Prisoners were kept in cramped conditions and even thrown in a small underground cell, only accessible through a hole in the floor of Said's office at the OCRB headquarters in the capital, Bangui.

"These are cells in which men were detained and subjected to what the prosecution says was grotesque abuse," Khan told the court.

Anti-Balaka rebels also on trial at ICC

The Central African authorities handed Said to the Hague-based court in January last year in response to an international arrest warrant issued in 2019.

The ICC – the world's only independent war crimes court set up in 2002 – partially confirmed charges against Said late last year, including counts of torture, persecution and cruel treatment of detainees committed at the OCRB compound.

Two former anti-Balaka leaders, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom, are also on trial at the ICC.

Thousands have lost their lives in the ongoing conflict despite intervention by France and the United Nations.

The country of some five million people – which the UN says is the world's second least developed – remains gripped by violence and human rights violations.