Who commanded Jean-Pierre Bemba’s forces deployed in the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR)? This question was at the center of the testimony of the two defense witnesses who testified this week in Mr. Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Both witnesses said it was Central African generals, not Mr. Bemba, who commanded the troops. Prosecutors and victims’ lawyers disagreed.
The issue of command responsibility is at the core of the trial of Mr. Bemba, the 49 year old Congolese opposition leader whose trial started in November 2010. It is charged that Mr. Bemba effectively acted as a military commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and that he had effective authority and control over the troops that allegedly committed rape, murder, and pillaging. It is further charged that whereas the accused knew that his troops were committing these crimes, he did not “take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.”
Accordingly, the prosecution and the defense have committed great efforts to proving whether Mr. Bemba was in command and control of his troops deployed in the Central African conflict. This week, ‘Witness D04-51’ and ‘Witness D04-64’ testified that the accused did not command his troops stationed in that country. The witnesses, both former officials in the government of Ange-Félix Patassé, the late president of the CAR, said local generals commanded the foreign soldiers.
‘Witness D04-64’ stated that on a visit to the conflict country, Mr. Bemba told his troops that they were under the command of Central African authorities. “He told them to respect Bombayake as himself,” said the witness. Ferdinand Bombayake was the commander of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard, which championed the counterinsurgency.
Under questioning by Assingambi Zarambaud, a lawyer for victims, the witness said it was because President Patassé had “confidence” in General Bombayake that he placed the MLC troops under his command. “At the time, the president couldn’t trust the head of staff of the FACA (Forces Armées Centrafricaines),” the witness said.
The insurgency against Mr. Patassé was led by the sacked former chief of staff of FACA, François Bozizé, who defected with several soldiers from the national army. ‘Witness D04-64’ recalled the arrival of the MLC and the logistical support provided to them by Central African authorities, such as uniforms, communication devices, weapons, vehicles, and a monetary allowance.
Mr. Zarambaud asked the witness whether the MLC would have been able to use their own equipment to communicate with their Congolese headquarters at Gbadolite, or it would have been necessary for CAR officials to set the frequencies.
“Yes,” responded the witness. He continued, “It would have been impossible for the communications to go through. If you take a radio set to the other side [of the border], the signal doesn’t go across.”
The trial has previously heard that Mr. Bemba had a communication center a few meters from his residence at Gbadolite, which is located a few kilometers south of the Central African border, from which operators allegedly received daily reports via radio about operations in the CAR.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-51’ said President Patassé was part of the command structure governing Mr. Bemba’s troops. His orders were allegedly channeled through General Bombayake. He said General Bombayake’s orders to the foreign troops were issued to the Congolese contingent’s head, Colonel Mustafa Mukiza, and were made in consultation with President Patassé. The witness said Mr. Patassé followed all the MLC’s field operations through a communications system set up at his residence.
“General Bombayake was running the show,” said the witness, who described the General as Mr. Patassé’s “right hand man.”
Faced with a rebellion in October 2002, Mr. Patassé called in the support of Mr. Bemba’s troops, who at the time were a rebel force in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Bemba denies responsibility for the crimes his troops allegedly committed, arguing that once they were deployed in the CAR, they fell under the command of Mr. Patassé.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-51’ stated that Central African soldiers led the Congolese troops in operations against the insurgents. “They followed us. They didn’t know the field. It is our soldiers who showed them the way.”
He said the coordination of movement and operations between the MLC and their Central African counterparts was done through radio. “We used the same radio frequency,” the witness said.
‘Witness D04-51’ stated that the Congolese troops did not operate independently of the local army during operations against rebel forces. He said all operations against the rebels were “joint,” and that because MLC soldiers did not know the terrain, local soldiers led the way. The witness said some Central African soldiers acted as drivers for the Congolese troops.
This witness also said all orders for the joint troops to advance were issued by the Center for Command Operations (CCOP), which coordinated all military operations against the insurgents. These orders were issued via radio over the frequency shared by the local and foreign troops.
The evidence by this witness contradicts that given by the former head of the CCOP, Colonel Thierry Lengbe. Testifying for the prosecution last November, he stated that the accused’s forces and the local army undertook only one joint operation.
‘Witness D04-51’ testified that the Congolese troops did not arrive in the country until October 30, 2002 – disputing earlier arrival dates given by some prosecution witnesses. Further, he said he heard over the local radio station Ndeke Luka that crimes, such as rapes, killings, and plunder, were being committed by rebels led by General Bozizé as well as by MLC fighters. He added, however, that in the confused state of affairs during the fighting, it was difficult to tell who was committing the crimes.
Witness D04-51’ also testified that on October 25, 2002, the Bozizé rebels pillaged his home and killed his brother. He also told the trial that he was upset when he heard on the radio that MLC soldiers were committing atrocities. “How could they rape our sisters? That upsets me, it angers me as well,” he said.
The trial continues on Monday, October 29, with the testimony of a new defense witness.