Lawyer: Central African Republic soccer chief is innocent

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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. The former head of the Central African Republic's soccer federation and an alleged rebel commander known as Rambo are going on trial Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 at the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom are accused of involvement in atrocities including murder, torture and attacking civilians in their roles as senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP, File)

THE HAGUE – The former head of Central African Republic's soccer federation used the popular sport to foster peace and unity in his country and played no role in anti-Muslim atrocities, his lawyer told judges at the International Criminal Court on Thursday.

Defense lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops told the three-judge panel in his opening statement that Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona is a victim of a rush to justice by prosecutors.

Both Ngaïssona and his co-defendant Alfred Yekatom, a rebel leader known as Rambo, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity as their trial opened at the global court.

Prosecutors accuse them of being senior leaders in a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka that engaged in bitter fighting with the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group and its perceived supporters in 2013 and 2014. The violence left thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee.

But Knoops countered that Ngaïssona's “endeavor in life was to bring peace and unity in his country, to reunite his people."

He called Ngaïssona "a person who was refusing to use violence, was refusing to use military means to achieve this goal. This is our defense case.”

Prosecutors say Ngaïssona is complicit in anti-Balaka crimes because he helped to arm, organize and gave political support to the group as it went on a bloody, vengeance-fueled rampage against Muslim civilians after the Seleka had violently seized control of the country in 2013 and ousted then-President Francois Bozize.

Yekatom's defense lawyers will make their opening statement when they begin presenting their evidence. That's likely to be months away as prosecutors have said they will call witnesses, including victims, experts and “insiders” to testify at the trial.

Both men face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted.

Knoops insisted that Ngaïssona used his influential position at the head of the soccer federation for good.

“His weapon, if we can speak about weapons in a metaphorical sense, was making his experience with sports — football — instrumental also for the unification of his people from all ethnicities,” Knoops said.