CAR: Police Unit Killed 18 in Cold Blood
June 27, Nairobi: Members of a special anti-crime unit in the Central African Republic unlawfully executed at least 18 people and possibly more between April 2015 and March 2016.
The former director of the unit, the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry (Office Central de Répression du Banditisme, OCRB), Robert Yékoua-Ketté, who was removed from his position on June 8, is directly implicated in 13 of the cases and should be investigated with a view to prosecuting him.
“The government has the right to remove Yékoua-Ketté as the first step in addressing impunity, but residents saw him and his men kill people in broad daylight,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Central Africans will not believe there can be rule of law and will live in fear of the OCRB unless the man they saw killing people faces justice.”
Of the 18 killings, witness testimony indicates that Yékoua-Ketté personally carried out one; ordered the execution of five; and was seen at the moment when seven men, who were later killed, were detained by the OCRB.
The government of the Central African Republic should promptly open an effective, transparent investigation into all the suspected extrajudicial executions by the OCRB, which operates in the capital, Bangui, Human Rights Watch said. In light of the unit’s long history of being implicated in abuses, if the investigation concludes that it is responsible for serious crimes, the government should consider disbanding the unit. Donors, including the European Union, France, and the United States, which are working with the Central African government on re-establishing security and rule of law, should ensure a focus on accountability.
Between November 2015 and April 2016, HRW interviewed 47 people in relation to OCRB abuses, including witnesses to detention by OCRB officers, witnesses to killings, and family members of victims.
HRW researchers documented 18 incidents of executions by the OCRB and received credible information about 12 more people similarly killed between March 2015 and March 2016. One victim, Samson Ndakouzou, 14, had been accused of stealing. Witnesses said the boy was taken with another victim to an unoccupied field where Yékoua-Ketté’s men shot him, hands tied behind his back, in the back and throat.
In February 2016, HRW shared its research on these executions with senior police officials who did not dispute the findings.
Although some victims appear to have been implicated in criminal activity, HRW concluded that the circumstances of their arrests or killings did not justify the use of lethal force, and that the killings constituted extrajudicial executions in violation of international law.
According to witnesses, Romaric Vounbo, 28 and a father of two, was killed directly by Yékoua-Ketté on October 28, 2015. They told that Yékoua-Ketté shot Vounbo twice in the stomach. When he did not collapse, one witness said: “Yékoua-Ketté told Romaric to open his mouth, but he [Vounbo] refused. Yékoua-Ketté forced his pistol into his mouth and shot him. His brains shot out from the back of his head.”
Another victim, Urie Kolaba, 20, was detained on October 22, and held at the OCRB. A witness said, “Yékoua-Ketté asked Urie to give his last words to his parents, but Urie said he had nothing to say. Yékoua-Ketté told him [Kolaba] to turn around and one of his officers shot him in the head.” HRW saw photos of Kolaba taken at the morgue that show he was shot through his right eye.
Family members of some victims told that Yékoua-Ketté himself told them that their loved ones were killed in OCRB custody. Yékoua-Ketté told a relative of Urie Kolaba that he was no longer at the OCRB and that his body could be found at the morgue.
Yékoua-Ketté personally arrested another victim, Cyril Ndourogbo, on January 14, 2016. Relatives said that on January 16, Yékoua-Ketté told them that he “had been searching for him [Ndourogbo]. Once I had him, I killed him. Look for his body in a bag on the Oubangui River.”
In other cases, HRW was able to confirm through eyewitness testimony that the OCRB arrested the victim, whose body was found either the same day or a few days later, along the banks of the Oubangi River. Human Rights Watch also documented two cases, and heard of several others, in which prisoners’ families were forced to pay Yékoua-Ketté a bribe in order to secure the release of their relative from the OCRB jail.
HRW found that 16 of the victims were unarmed when they were detained and did not pose any threat to the life of police officers or the public. Two were allegedly armed when they were initially detained, but were disarmed by police officers and later killed. Two other victims were suspected of throwing grenades in an attempted robbery, injuring at least five people, but were unarmed when detained, and killed. Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least five individuals, including Samson Ndakouzou, 14, were held in an OCRB jail before being summarily executed.
“Robert Yékoua-Ketté and his officers clearly felt they could execute people with complete impunity,” Mudge said. “The new government, with international support, made the right decision to remove Yékoua-Ketté, but now it needs to show the Central African people that even ‘untouchable’ commanders will be held to account.”
The human rights division of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA, has investigated killings by the OCRB since March 2015 and raised the issue repeatedly, both informally and in official correspondences, with transitional authorities and authorities in the new government. Yékoua-Ketté admitted to MINUSCA officials that he had ordered the killings of at least two men, Nathan Badi and Saint-Cyr Dezoua. Both men were killed by OCRB officers in Miskine neighborhood on July 31, 2015.
International and Central African Republic law prohibits arbitrary killings and summary executions of detainees or suspects. The United Nations Basic Principles of the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require that law enforcement officials use nonviolent means whenever possible and use lethal force only to protect life. The principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under the law.
Several family members of victims told Human Rights Watch they would file suit against Yékoua-Ketté in the local courts if they felt safe to do so. MINUSCA’s mandate includes providing support to the national police and judicial institutions. This support could also include witness protection in sensitive cases such as the prosecution of Yékoua-Ketté for murders committed by himself or men under his command.
MINUSCA should offer judicial, investigative and protection assistance to the national government in its efforts to seek accountability for crimes committed by the OCRB.
The Oslo Times International News Network/HRW