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Criminal justice a rare commodity in Central African Republic

© AFP / by Amaury HAUCHARD | Wheels of justice: The prosecutor and president of Bouar's High Court take their seats

BOUAR (CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC) (AFP) - 

At Bouar appeal court, presiding judge Aime Pascal Delimo twiddles his thumbs, surveys his empty office and then, with a sigh, closes his door to leave early.

Delimo wields jurisdiction over territory in western Central African Republic (CAR) that is the size of Austria. Violent crime here is chronic. But he has no work.

In one of the world's poorest countries, the criminal justice system in Bouar and many other of CAR's provincial towns has quite simply broken down.

"Normally we would be finishing at 3:30 pm, but given the pace of the court, I leave in the early afternoon, around 2:00 pm," Delimo says.

"It's been four years I've been here and no criminal cases have been heard." He tries about 15 cases every year, all civil suits or commercial disputes.

When he leaves to go home, Delimo shuts one of three front doors on the big white building. The others have been closed all day. Two magistrates who had offices there died recently and have not been replaced.

"If republican justice is not available, there's bound to be what we call the justice of weaponry, the victors, the executioners," Delimo remarks impassively.

The CAR plunged into a succession of conflicts and massacres after the overthrow of President Francois Bozize in 2013. Four years on, the judicial system barely functions beyond the capital Bangui.

No criminal cases have been tried in the west since 2010, though violence occurs almost daily. Of late, northwestern towns including Ngaoundaye, Bocaranga, Niem and Bang have all seen clashes, killings and looting.

- Raped and released -

At Bouar prison, one of two jails in western CAR, 18 people charged with criminal offences are being held pending trial.

"I've been here since February 2015. I've done almost three years in prison," says Faustin. The 45-year-old is one of 84 men and women detained in four large cells.

One woman who faced criminal proceedings was freed earlier this year after she was raped by a fellow inmate and became pregnant.

Delimo explains that he needs money to pay for witnesses to come to court, a proper gown, a means of transport and computer equipment. All he has is his personal cellphone. In the adjoining office his assistant works on an old typewriter.

"The failure to hold criminal trials encourages impunity," says Bernard Koutou, the single lawyer in the Bouar administrative district and one of just three in the west of the country.

"To be a lawyer is to be self-employed," says Koutou, who has been taken on by the American Bar Association (ABA). The organisation has a programme called the Rule of Law Initiative aimed at strengthening some of the systemic weaknesses in CAR's judicial sector.

"You need clients and here there are almost none."

Few people in the poverty-stricken western CAR can afford to pay for a court case.

For criminal cases, a budget of 10 million CFA francs (15,250 euros / $18,000) has been allocated to Bouar, but it has yet to be released by the authorities.

- 'Cash-flow problem' -

A large banner in the courtroom announces a criminal trial at the end of August, but as promised funds to conduct it never came through, the case was dropped. The banner remains.

"There's a cash-flow problem," said an official at the ministry of justice.

Lack of resources constantly hampers efforts to rebuild the pillars of the state beyond the capital.

"Without the means, we can't go to remote places, and plaintiffs making appeals can't come to Bouar," Delimo says.

The court should have convened to hear a civil case the previous week, the judge says, by way of example.

"But the plaintiffs live in Nola, 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Bouar. They did not come and the case was postponed."

The main victims of conflict that took on ethnic and religious dimensions, civilians are in no position to bring cases to court.

"In many places, there are no gendarmerie, no police officers, nobody to take complaints," Delimo said

Violence and intimidation are major concerns. Armed bands include so-called anti-Balaka militias -- formed in largely Christian communities to protect them from mostly Muslim ex-rebels -- along with ethnic Peul forces.

"Verdicts are influenced by fear of reprisals if a member or an associate of an armed group is put on trial," an observer says.

In Bouar, people impatiently place their hopes in a Special Criminal Court aimed at investigating and trying war crimes committed in CAR since 2003.

The court, combining CAR and foreign judges, was set up in 2015, but is still not operational.

"We just hope that it gets the funds," said Delimo.

by Amaury HAUCHARD

© 2017 AFP