Prosecutors at the global court allege that 43-year-old Alfred Yekatom is responsible for crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers during his country's bitter conflict. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia that killed Muslims in attacks between December 2013 and August 2014 in and around the capital, Bangui.
At his first appearance before ICC judges since his transfer to the Netherlands over the weekend, Yekatom confirmed his name, age and that he had read the charges in his arrest warrant. He wasn't required to enter a plea at the 35-minute hearing.
Defense lawyer Xavier-Jean Keita told Presiding Judge Antoine Mindua that Yekatom says he was beaten with a Kalashnikov rifle butt after he was arrested last month after firing gunshots in parliament. Keita also said Yekatom was held illegally following his arrest and before he was put on a plane to The Hague, where the court is based.
"His fundamental rights were violated," Keita said. Mindua set April 30 as the date for a hearing at which judges will listen to prosecution evidence before considering whether to confirm the charges against Yekatom and order him to stand trial.
The Central African Republic has been plagued by interreligious and intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital and mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. The violence left thousands of people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
The government asked the ICC in May 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.
Yekatom's arrest warrant says he used "violent and inflammatory rhetoric" and ordered his forces to "kill Selekas and Muslims" and destroy their homes as well as a mosque. Human Rights Watch welcomed the case against Yekatom.
Elise Keppler, associate director of the group's International Justice Program, said it "provides a chance for the International Criminal Court to do a more effective job in delivering justice for atrocities" in Central African Republic. She said the charges "should be the first among more involving crimes committed by all sides in the Central African Republic."
Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed.