Alleged Central African Republic rebels plead not guilty

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FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 file photo, the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona stands during his initial appearance before the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. The former head of the Central African Republic's soccer federation and an alleged rebel commander known as Rambo are going on trial Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 at the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom are accused of involvement in atrocities including murder, torture and attacking civilians in their roles as senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP, File)

THE HAGUE – Two alleged leaders of a predominantly Christian rebel group in the Central African Republic were key players in a campaign of atrocities against Muslim civilians intended to restore to power to the country's ousted president in 2013 and 2014, an International Criminal Court prosecution lawyer said Tuesday as their trial opened.

The men both pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted.

Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yekatom, a rebel leader known as Rambo, are accused of involvement in crimes including murder, torture and attacking civilians. The charges stem from their roles as senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka that engaged in bitter fighting with the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group and its perceived supporters in 2013 and 2014.

“I reject all the charges that you have laid against me,” Yekatom said. Ngaïssona told Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt: “I do not recognize myself in the charges brought against me. I am not guilty.”

The interreligious violence left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands. Mosques, shops and homes were looted and destroyed.

The trial is the first at the global court that focuses on the violence that erupted after the Seleka seized power in the Central African Republic in 2013, forcing President Francois Bozize into exile.

Prosecution lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye told the three-judge panel that 150 prosecution witnesses, including victims, experts and “insiders” will testify at the trial and prove the defendants' guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Ngaissona helped mobilize, arm and finance diverse groups into the anti-Balaka movement intended to restore Bozize to power and mete out “payback” knowing that it would target the Muslim population of western Central African Republic, Vanderpuye said.