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Trial of ex-leader tests African nation's ability to follow due process

A former self-proclaimed African emperor accused of multiple murders and numerous other atrocities is on trial for his life in the nation he once ruled - the Central African Republic. The trial of Jean-B'edel Bokassa tests the extent to which the small, very poor nation can follow due process while minimizing any political fallout from the almost certain verdict of guilty. Mr. Bokassa, who was deposed while out of the country in September 1979, has since been tried in absentia and found guilty. A Cabinet minister of the Central African Republic (CAR) says Bokassa's sentence could be commuted if he is found guilty.

It is not clear why Bokassa returned recently - voluntarily, from France despite French orders not to leave.

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Despite some grass-roots resentment, France maintains a military presence in the CAR, a former French colony, to help ensure stability. The CAR is adjacent to Chad, another former French colony, which is divided by war and partially occupied by Libyan forces. Whether the trial will stir up the political scene in the CAR is not yet clear. The trial began Nov. 26 but was recessed for 12 days so the court could get more information.

Bokassa was ousted in a coup in 1979 by a cousin after heading what critics charge was one of Africa's cruelest regimes. Critics say he was responsible for the deaths of at least 100 school children who refused to wear school uniforms made at a factory run by one of his wives. Critics also accuse him of causing numerous deaths of political opponents.

In 1977, 11 years after taking power, Bokassa declared himself emperor in a ceremony costing millions of dollars. He ``raped, pillaged, and plundered'' the economy,'' says Michael Schatzberg, associate professor of African studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. ``He controlled just about everything.'' There is little doubt the human rights allegations against Bokassa are true, say Mr. Schatzberg and a United States State Department official.

By comparison, the current government of Andr'e-Dieudonn'e Kolingba has made important changes. It is making economic reforms under an ``austerity'' program imposed by international lending agencies, a State Department official says. In November, Mr. Kolingba was elected President (he was the only candidate) and a Constitution was adopted in a national election. But Schatzberg doubts the government will pay much attention to the Constitution and predicts the future parliament to be elected will be a ``rubber stamp'' for Kolingba. He calls the government ``authoritarian.''

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