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Court Hears Evidence on Ex-Emperor’s 14-year Rule

December 15, 1986

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) _ The trial of former Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa I began in earnest Monday and witnesses told of killings, torture and aribitrary imprisonment during his 14-year dictatorship.

The stocky, bearded Bokassa, now 65, conceded Monday that ″people got killed when they plotted against me.″

″I am not a saint. I am a man like everyone else,″ he added.

But he denied having ordered executions or torture of prisoners. Bokassa, who wore a gray business suit and striped tie, said that as chief of state, he could not ″be expected to be informed about every detail″ of acts committed under his reign.

On its opening day, Nov. 26, the trial was postponed for ″further inquiries.″ Bokassa faces 14 charges ranging from mass murder and ″procuring human bodies″ for purposes of cannibalism to the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.

He is also charged with ″intelligence with a foreign power″ for handing over the Central African army base in Bouar to Libyan troops. Bouar is now under the control of French paratroopers.

State prosecutor Gabriel Mbodou said Bokassa was his own interior minister and defense minister and had power of life and death over the entire nation.

″There can be no doubt that he must be held responsible for his acts,″ Mbodou added.

Hundreds of French-commanded troops surrounded the courthouse, outnumbering the civilians who gathered outside apparently hoping for a glimpse of Bokassa. Only carefully selected spectators were allowed into the hot, humid courtroom.

The first effective day of the trial heard numerous witnesses, including former prisoners in Bokassa’s jails and those identifying themselves as widows and relatives of Bokassa’s victims.

But the hearing barely advanced beyond testimony on the first years of Bokassa’s rule, and French defense lawyer Francois Gibault said ″at this rate, the trial could continue until Easter.″

Bokassa was ousted in a French-backed coup in 1979 and later settled in France. As a French army captain with distinguished service in World War II and the Indochina War, he automatically qualified for French citizenship.

He was tried in his absence on the same charges in 1980 and sentenced to death. The legal system dating to French colonial rule required him to face a new trial following his voluntary return in October.

The indictment accuses Bokassa of murdering 17 schoolchildren in January 1979 after they protested having to wear expensive school uniforms made in a factory owned by his wife.

Monday’s session, however, focused on the killing of prisoners before 1974, when he had not yet proclaimed himself emperor but only president-for-life .

Witnesses testified that the sons, brothers and other kin of Alexandre Banza, Bokassa’s finance minister executed in 1969 for allegedly plotting against him, were rounded up and never seen again.

One victim, former Police Inspector Joseph Kalo, allegedly was put to death with a nail driven into his head because he was thought to be implicated.

Jean-Pierre Kombet, former ambassador to Switzerland, testified he was accused of coup activities and was held in Bangui’s Ngaragba Prison nine years, until Bokassa’s ouster.

Kombet said prisoners were tortured and ″some were brought back to die in my cell.″

Witnesses said Djibrine Kenguela, deputy governor of Carnot district, 250 west of Bangui, was put to death in Ngaragba for opposing arbitrary allocation of a diamond mining concession to a Bokassa favorite.

Kenguela’s widow said she later viewed his ″almost unrecognizable″ body.

A former governor, Policarpe Gbaguile, said he was imprisoned without trial for 10 years. He testified he saw other prisoners mercilessly beaten while chained to the ground and then ″executed by starvation.″

Bokassa disclaimed knowing of such acts and implied they were committed by undisciplined soldiers ″made nervous″ by coup attempts.

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