Dakar — "Under international law, these offences ... may be considered crimes against humanity and war crimes"
Armed groups in Central African Republic are using rape and sexual slavery as weapons of war in an abuse that may amount to crimes against humanity, a rights group said on Thursday.
Thousands have died and a fifth of Central Africans have been uprooted in a conflict that broke out after the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in early 2013, provoking a backlash from Christian anti-balaka militias.
Both the Seleka and the anti-balaka have sexually assaulted, raped and enslaved civilians as revenge against those believed to be supporting the other side, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Yet not a single militant on either side of the conflict has been arrested or tried for sexual violence, HRW said.
"Armed groups are using rape in a brutal, calculated way to punish and terrorise women and girls," HRW researcher Hillary Margolis said following the release of a report documenting 305 cases of rape and sexual slavery against women and girls.
"Under international law, these offences ... may be considered crimes against humanity and war crimes," HRW said.
Victims told HRW how militants often raped them in front of their children, and abused, attacked and killed their relatives.
Many women and girls were whipped, tied up and burned, and gang-raped repeatedly while being held as sex slaves, HRW said.
"Every day we could not rest - every day there was rape, by different fighters," 30-year-old Jeanne, who was held captive by Seleka fighters for six months in 2014, told the rights group.
Stigma, impunity for attackers and a dysfunctional justice system has prevented many victims from speaking out, HRW said.
Only 11 of the 296 survivors interviewed by HRW said they had tried to seek justice, with some victims blamed for their ordeal and others told to present their attackers for arrest.
Most victims said they had not received post-rape medical or mental health care - such as drugs to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancy - due to a lack of health facilities, the cost of services or transport, and misconceptions about their options.
"Every day, survivors live with the devastating aftermath of rape, and the knowledge that their attackers are walking free, perhaps holding positions of power, and to date facing no consequences whatsoever," Margolis said in a statement.
Widespread killings and rapes of civilians by militants in Central African Republic - where militia violence has risen this year - have also been documented by the United Nations and other rights groups, such as Amnesty International.
The United Nations is helping the government to establish a Special Criminal Court, agreed to in 2015, to try the worst crimes committed in the landlocked nation.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.
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