Africa/France: Groupe Castel targeted by anti-terrorist prosecutors

The French anti-terror prosecutor's office has launched investigations into Groupe Castel, the third-largest wine producer worldwide, the second-largest brewer in Africa, and a major bottling partner for Coca-Cola in Africa. As Reuters reported today, the inquiry opened in Paris for alleged collaboration with a criminal rebel group in the Central African Republic is not formally directed against the group or executives, but was opened "against X", allowing prosecutors to investigate in all directions.

The allegations were made a year ago by The Sentry, an anti-corruption NGO founded by actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast, but authorities have only now started investigating.

For almost 20 years, Groupe Castel has been operating Sucrerie Africaine de Centrafrique (African Sugar Refinery of the Central African Republic, or SUCAF RCA) in the war-torn Central African Republic —a country that ranked 188 out of 189 in the 2020 Human Development Index.

According to The Sentry’s investigation, in late 2014, amid political and security upheaval, SUCAF RCA negotiated a security arrangement with an armed group, the Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique (Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, or UPC). Through this tacit agreement, UPC leaders committed to secure SUCAF RCA’s factory and sugar cane fields and to ensure free movement on key roadways necessary for the provision of supplies.

As The Sentry reports, SUCAF RCA set up a sophisticated, informal system to finance the violent militias through direct and indirect cash payments, as well as through in-kind support in the form of vehicle maintenance and fuel provision. This tacit agreement between SUCAF RCA and UPC militias was active through March 2021, but its future remains uncertain due to the deployment of governmental and Russian forces in territories formerly controlled by the UPC.

Since their creation in late 2014, UPC militias, led by self-proclaimed General Ali Darassa, have committed mass killings, abductions, torture, child soldier recruitment, and sexual and gender-based violence. The United Nations has reported that the UPC militias committed mass atrocities that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. In November 2018, the UPC was also responsible for a brutal attack on a camp of 18,000 displaced people in the town of Alindao that resulted in the massacre of over 112 civilians, most of them women and children.

Faced with the news, a Groupe Castel spokesman said the company was fully cooperating with French authorities, but added that an internal investigation, launched last August after the initial allegations, had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

In May, The Coca-Cola Company announced cutting ties with Groupe Castel in Burkina Faso, after having previously done the same in Ivory Coast and a number of other African countries.It was not revealed if this decision was related to last year’s releases of The Sentry, or if there were other proprietary reasons.

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