Former Central African Republic government minister denies involvement in war crimes at ICC hearing

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A former government minister from the Central African Republic denied involvement in crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in a deadly conflict in the impoverished nation when he appeared at a pretrial hearing at the International Criminal Court Tuesday.

Prosecutors accuse Maxime Jeoffroy Eli Mokom Gawaka of coordinating operations of the anti-Balaka, a mainly Christian group which fought against the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel group. The fighting left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands in 2013 and 2014.

Mokom faces charges including murder, extermination, deportation, torture, persecution, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. The hearing that started Tuesday is not a trial, but will establish if evidence is strong enough to merit putting him on trial. He was not required to enter a plea.

“I absolutely deny having participated in any plans that involved crimes that have been charged,” Mokom told judges in the ICC courtroom in The Hague.

He said he returned to Central African Republic from Congo in February 2014 and “dedicated my return to the search for peace, rather than to engage in war.”

His defense lawyer, Philippe Larochelle, earlier told the hearing that prosecutors already had uncovered evidence that could exonerate Mokom, even before his arrest early last year in Chad. He told judges the evidence “undermines every aspect of the prosecutor’s theory.”

Mokom is the fourth suspect from the long-running conflict in the mineral-rich but impoverished nation to appear before judges at the global court.

Violence has plagued Central African Republic since 2013, when Seleka rebels forced then-President Francois Bozize from office. Militias known as anti-Balaka later fought back, also targeting civilians and sending most of the Muslim residents of the capital, Bangui, fleeing in fear.

The government and 14 rebel groups signed a peace deal in February 2019, but violence again erupted after the constitutional court rejected Bozize’s candidacy to run for president in 2020.