A former Central African Republic rebel commander pleaded not guilty at the International Criminal Court on Monday at the start of his trial on charges of “awful” war crimes.

Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, 52, an alleged member of the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group, is accused of torturing opposition supporters as the country spiralled into violence in 2013.

One of the poorest countries in the world, the former French colony was plunged into a bloody sectarian conflict after the Seleka ousted president Francois Bozize.

“I have listened to everything and I plead not guilty,” Said told judges at the Hague-based court, where he faces seven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“I plead not guilty to all charges and all situations,” added Said, wearing a charcoal suit and light blue shirt with dark blue tie.

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

The coup against Bozize had unleashed a bloodbath between the Seleka and “anti-Balaka”, which means “anti-machete” forces, who were mainly Christian or animist and who backed Bozize.

“Mr Said has entered not guilty pleas, that is his right,” ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan told the judges.

“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 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, said Khan.

“His voice determined the fates of so many individuals,” added the prosecutor.

“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.

It left “so many” victims with partial or temporary paralysis and numbness, Khan said.

“These wounds cut deep indeed,” he said.

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, Khan said.

“These are cells in which men were detained and subjected to what the prosecution says was grotesque abuse,” Khan said.

Detainees were “treated not as humans, not even as animals, a class below. A humanity apparently eviscerated by the policies and action of the accused,” said Khan.

CAR authorities handed Said to the ICC 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, late last year partially confirmed charges against Said 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 former colonial power 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.


© Agence France-Presse