ISSN 2330-717X

Central African Republic: HRW Says Russia-Linked Forces Committing Abuses

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Forces in the Central African Republic, whom witnesses identified as Russian, appear to have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians since 2019, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. National authorities, the country’s Special Criminal Court (SCC), or the International Criminal Court (ICC), should investigate these incidents as well as other credible allegations of abuse by Russia-linked forces with a view to criminal prosecution.

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Several Western governments, and United Nations experts and special rapporteurs have found evidence that the forces linked to Russia operating in the Central African Republic include a significant number of members of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military security contractor with apparent links to the Russian government. On April 15, the United Nations announced it would investigate the circumstances in which at least 10 people were killed in the northeast, with some initial reports alleging Russian forces may have been involved.

“There is compelling evidence that Russian-identified forces supporting the Central African Republic’s government have committed grave abuses against civilians with complete impunity,” said Ida Sawyer, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of the Central African Republic government and its partners to forcefully denounce these abuses, and to identify and prosecute those responsible, will most likely only fuel further crimes in Africa and beyond.” 

Between February 2019 and November 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 people in person and 19 others by phone, including 10 victims and 15 witnesses, about abuses they said were committed by men with white skin speaking Russian, a language the witnesses recognized. Witnesses said that the men were carrying military-grade weapons and wearing beige khaki clothes, scarves to cover their faces, military boots, gloves, and sunglasses.

In August 2018 the Central African Republic and Russian authorities signed an agreement under which “primarily former military officers” from Russia, also called “specialists”, would train Central African Republic forces. Russia-linked forces in the Central African Republic do not wear a designated uniform with official insignia or other distinguishing features.

Twelve people spoke about an incident on the morning of July 21, 2021, in which apparent Russian-speaking forces killed at least 12 unarmed men near the town of Bossangoa. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of those killed from the United Nations and others who knew the victims. Bossangoa officials said the Central African authorities concluded that 13 people were killed in the attack.

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Witnesses said that men speaking Russian set up a roadblock, stopped the men, beat, and shot them dead, and then put at least eight of the bodies in a shallow hole next to the road.

On August 2 the government said that it would set up a special commission of inquiry to establish responsibility and take appropriate measures. On October 27, in a joint statement, 16 UN Working Group experts and special rapporteurs referred to the special commission finding earlier that month that “Russian instructors” had committed human rights and laws of war violations. However, the commission has not published its findings.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with six men who said that Central African army forces accused them and fifteen other men of being rebels and unlawfully detained them for several days or weeks between June and August 2021 in inhuman conditions in an open hole at a national army base in Alindao, in Basse Kotto province, in the south. They said both national army and Russian-speaking forces beat five of the men and that both forces may have executed two who were rebel combatants. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the allegations of extrajudicial executions.

Human Rights Watch also documented cases of detention and torture by Russia-linked forces in Bambari in 2019.

The UN says the first training conducted by “Russian instructors” of Central African forces concluded on March 31, 2018, since when Russia-linked forces have remained in the country. Reports of abuse by these forces first surfaced in media reports in February 2019, and the UN later reported on abuses by these forces in 2020 and 2021. In July 2018 three Russian journalists making a documentary in the country on the presence of the Wagner Group were murdered, but their killers have not been found.

Former Prime Minister Henri-Marie Dondra, who stepped down in early February 2022, has said that “there is no contract” between his country and “a Russian private security company.… only a military cooperation agreement with Russia.” The current Russian security adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadera also told Human Rights Watch in November that Russia-linked forces in the Central African Republic had no connection to the Wagner Group. On May 1, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in an interview with an Italian news channel acknowledged that the Wagner Group “provides security services” to the Malian government and that “this private military company has [also] been invited by the Libyan authorities on a commercial basis, like in Mali.”

However, the European UnionFrance, and the United States, as well as the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, and UN Working Group experts and special rapporteurs have all reported that the Wagner Group is operating in the country.

The EU has concluded that its personnel are an integral part of the Russian authorities’ presence in the country, saying that as of late November 2021, “most” Central African Republic army units were “operating under [the] direct command or supervision [of] Wagner Group mercenaries.”

The US Treasury Department describes the Wagner Group as a “Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force” which it says is “believed to be manage[d] and financ[ed]” by a Russian oligarch reportedly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on eight “entities and individuals” it says are working to advance Russia’s influence in the Central African Republic.

The EU has also sanctioned a number of other individuals involved in the Wagner Group’s activities, including in current operations in the Central African RepublicLibya, and Syria. Media organizations have also reported that the Group is active in Mali, and in the current fighting in Ukraine, for which the UK has also sanctioned the group. In February 2022 the African Union’s Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security said he wanted to “completely exclude mercenaries from our continent”.

On April 26, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Central African government and to the Russian foreign minister to present its findings and request information relating to any status of forces agreement between Russia and the Central African Republic and to the presence of Wagner operatives in the country. Human Rights Watch also asked the Central African government about the special commission’s findings. There has been no reply.  

National judicial authorities, the country’s Special Criminal Court, a hybrid war crimes court based in Bangui, and the ICC all have jurisdiction over serious crimes committed in the country. Credible allegations of abuse, including potential war crimes, by Russia-linked forces or private security personnel in the country should be investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should fully cooperate with such an investigation.

“The Central African government has every right to request international security assistance, but it can’t allow foreign forces to kill and otherwise abuse civilians with impunity,” Sawyer said. “To demonstrate its respect for the rule of law, and to put an end to these abuses, the government should immediately investigate and prosecute all forces, including Russia-linked forces, responsible for murder, unlawful detention, and torture.”

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