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NYT: No Charges in Sexual Abuse Case Involving French Peacekeepers

New York Times

By BENOÎT MORENNE
JAN. 6, 2017

PARIS — A panel of French judges has decided not to bring charges against soldiers accused of having sexually abused children while on a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, officials said on Friday.

Soldiers were sent to the country, a former French colony, in 2013 to help quell a sectarian conflict there, but allegations of sexual and physical violence by the troops have been an embarrassment for France.

They also have been an embarrassment for the United Nations, where rights investigators compiled a confidential report in 2014 about the allegations and the organization did not move quickly to rectify them. The French authorities became aware of the allegations only when the report was leaked to them.

The lapse at the United Nations in promptly notifying the French led to an investigation by an independent panel that accused some of the organization’s officials of having passed the allegations “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox” and having failed to meet their core mission to protect the rights of the most vulnerable civilians.

The confidential report chronicled testimony by six children — ages 9 to 13 — who described abuse by the soldiers in a camp at Bangui M’Poko International Airport in the capital from December 2013 to June 2014. Four of the children said they had been abused by the soldiers, while two said they had witnessed the abuse.

Acting on the report, French prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation in July 2014. The case was not known to the public until an advocacy group, AIDS Free World, provided a copy to the British newspaper The Guardian, which reported the findings in April 2015.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre, said on Friday that the judges completed their review of the abuse allegations on Dec. 20. The decision to close the case, or bring it to trial, will be definitively made in less than four months, after the judges have received any additional information from groups representing the accusers and the prosecutor’s office.

“There’s a whole problem about identifying people,” she said in a phone interview, noting that the case was particularly difficult because it was based solely on the children’s accounts, without independent evidence. “Are these accusations clear, accurate, detailed, repeated? And, based on these accusations, have we identified who might be the perpetrators?”

The completion of the investigation was first reported by the radio network RFI and the newspaper Le Monde.

Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, reacted angrily to the news. “This is a travesty,” she said in an email. “If African soldiers had sexually abused little boys in Paris, the investigation wouldn’t be closed until every perpetrator was behind bars.”

Ms. Donovan also pointed out that President François Hollande of France had vowed publicly to “show no mercy” to perpetrators of the abuse after it had become known.

Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer for Ecpat, an organization that combats the sexual exploitation of children, said in a phone interview that he was not surprised that criminal charges would not be brought. The organization has filed a civil claim seeking financial compensation for wrongdoing it says it believes was committed by the peacekeepers.

“Neither the judges nor the Paris prosecutor’s office has required that anyone be charged,” he said, adding that “we’ll take a look and see if we agree with the judges and the prosecutor’s office.”

Eléonore Chiossone, a technical expert at Ecpat, said the group was considering whether to keep looking for evidence, which it might present to the judges.

“We know how difficult it can be to collect testimony from children,” she said. “It’s not always easy for children to be comfortable with that procedure.”

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the United Nations, said in a statement that it was following the developments in France “with interest” and that member states have the responsibility “to fully investigate and hopefully prosecute these crimes.”

Mr. Dujarric also noted in the statement that the French troops were not part of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic “and were not under U.N. command.”

Ms. Thibault-Lecuivre said that the authorities on Nov. 20 closed a second investigation, involving the alleged abuse of a teenager by a French soldier in Boda, west of Bangui, in 2014. The teenager had initially accused the soldier of raping and impregnating her, but later changed her account and said they had unprotected but consensual sex, according to the French news site Mediapart.

The cases have been controversial. A draft of a United Nations memo in October suggested that some cases of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic might have been fabricated by people seeking to profit by making false accusations.

At least one other case of abuse involving French peacekeepers in the country — one concerning allegations that peacekeepers forced four girls in a displaced persons camp to have sex with a dog — remains under investigation. Last year, the United Nations referred the case for an investigation by the French Defense Ministry.

Follow Benoît Morenne on Twitter @benmorenne.

Sewell Chan contributed reporting from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/06/world/africa/french-peacekeepers-un-sexual-abuse-case-central-african-republic.html?ref=world&_r=0