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By Kieran Guilbert

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Perpetrators of war crimes including murder and rape in Central African Republic are going unpunished and fuelling worsening violence in the country, Amnesty International said on Wednesday as it called for funds to rebuild the national justice system.

Dozens of people suspected of committing war crimes and other rights abuses have avoided investigation and arrest, and some are living alongside their victims in a nation divided along ethnic and religious lines, the human rights group said.

"The national justice system is on its knees. It was weak prior to the conflict and collapsed in 2013," Amnesty researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"Thousands of victims of human rights abuses are still waiting for justice to be served, while individuals who have committed horrific crimes like murder and rape roam free."

Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict since March 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, sparking a backlash from Christian anti-balaka militias.

Despite a February election seen as a step toward reconciliation, Amnesty said a lack of justice had contributed to an increase in violent clashes in recent months.

Few courts are running outside of the capital Bangui, and just eight out of 35 prisons in the country are functional, with poor security resulting in several prison breaks, Amnesty said.

The country's U.N. peacekeeping mission, which civilians say does not do enough to protect them from armed groups, has helped authorities arrest 384 people for crimes linked to the conflict between September 2014 and October 2016, the report said.

Yet this figures includes only a handful of high-profile individuals suspected of having committed the most serious crimes, according to the rights group.

In addition to rebuilding its courts, prisons and police force, the country must set up as soon as possible the Special Criminal Court, a hybrid court of national and international judges to try individuals suspected of war crimes, Amnesty said.

More funding is needed to ensure the court can run for at least five years, and donor countries should also help by nominating qualified judges and legal staff, the report said.

"Sustainable funding for the Special Criminal Court, including robust witness protection programmes, is an essential step towards justice," Allegrozzi said.

The Central African Republic government could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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