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ICC Launches CAR Mass Rape Inquiry

Court says rape of civilians in the Central African Republic was committed in numbers that cannot be ignored under international law.
By Katy Glassborow
Prosecutors from the International Criminal Court, ICC, have launched an investigation into mass rape and killings in the Central African Republic, CAR, which took place during fighting between government and rebel forces in 2002 and 2003, following a failed coup.



Launching the inquiry on May 22, the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said the conflict appears to have featured a pattern of mass rapes and sexual violence committed against civilians by armed fighters.



The CAR government referred the situation to ICC prosecutors in December 2004, providing investigators and lawyers with information relating to the crimes, together with evidence collected for prosecutions in national courts.



In 2005, prosecutors sent a team to Bangui, the CAR capital, and found that the Cour de Cassation - the country's highest judicial body - was unable to carry out necessary proceedings to investigate and prosecute crimes.



The ICC can only intervene if national justice systems are “unwilling or unable” to deal with cases domestically, and prosecutors concluded that the CAR authorities were unable even to "collect evidence and obtain the accused".



Moreno-Ocampo said his office has reviewed information from a range of sources including international human rights organisations, and "will now conduct our own independent investigation, gather evidence, and prosecute the individuals who are most responsible".



Following criticism that crimes of sexual violence have not featured heavily in arrest warrants for suspects from Uganda, the DR Congo and Darfur - the other areas the ICC is involved in - prosecutors stressed that sexual crimes far outnumber killings in CAR.



"The allegations of sexual crimes are detailed and substantiated. The information we have now suggests that the rape of civilians was committed in numbers that cannot be ignored under international law," said Moreno-Ocampo.



According to prosecutors, hundreds of rape victims have come forward to tell their stories.



Reports used by ICC prosecution investigators indicate that rape has been committed against innocent elderly women, young girls and men, often featuring "aggravating aspects of cruelty", such as multiple perpetrators and the forced participation of family members.



"These victims are calling for justice," said Moreno-Ocampo.



Prosecutors will now begin collecting criminal evidence, focusing on peak periods of violence in 2002 and 2003, and stressed that "investigations are not targeting any particular suspect at this stage and will be guided solely by the evidence that emerges".



The launch of this investigation comes against a background of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in CAR, and prosecutors stressed they are aware of "worrying reports" of violence and crimes taking place on the northern borders with Chad and Sudan.



They have pledged to continue gathering evidence and monitoring crimes committed in Birao and Paoua since violence flared in the north again at the end of 2005.



Despite calls for Jean-Pierre Bemba and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, to be investigated for their role in CAR violence, the ICC insisted that no particular suspect has been targeted at this stage, and investigators "will be guided solely by the evidence that emerges".



Analytical story about the new ICC investigation will follow shortly.



Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.