FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 file photo, the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona stands during his initial appearance before the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Two leaders of a predominantly Christian militia, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom, involved in a bitter conflict with Muslim forces in the Central African Republic have appeared at the International Criminal Court for a hearing, that started Thursday Sept. 19, 2019, at which prosecutors are seeking to persuade judges that they have sufficient evidence to send the suspects to trial. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP, File)

ICC pretrial hearing starts in Central African Republic case

September 19, 2019 - 5:42 am

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Two alleged leaders of a predominantly Christian militia involved in a bitter conflict with Muslim forces in Central African Republic appeared Thursday at the International Criminal Court for a hearing at which prosecutors will seek to persuade judges that there is sufficient evidence to send the suspects to trial.

Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom are suspected of involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, persecution, torture and use of child soldiers when they were senior leaders in the anti-Balaka militia.

Ngaissona, who was chief of his country's soccer federation when he was arrested on an ICC warrant in Paris last year, faces 111 charges and Yekatom, who was turned over to the court in 2018, faces 21 charges.

Neither man entered a plea as the pretrial hearing, which is scheduled to last several days, began.

Yekatom's lawyer, Mylène Dimitri, argued that her client cannot adequately defend himself because prosecutors are withholding evidence that they have collected in their investigations into the mainly Muslim armed group known as Seleka.

Yekatom "is defending himself in the dark," Dimitri told the three-judge panel assessing evidence at the hearing.

The anti-Balaka group is accused of targeting Muslims in interreligious and intercommunal fighting that erupted in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in Central African Republic's capital, Bangui. The violence left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Central African Republic's government asked the ICC in 2014 to investigate crimes allegedly committed by both the Seleka and the anti-Balaka. So far, no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

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