All soldiers belonging to Jean-Pierre Bemba’s militia, who were convicted of crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR), served their full terms, according to witness testimony heard today.
While Mr. Bemba is being tried at the International Criminal court (ICC) over failure to discipline his unruly soldiers, ‘Witness 48’ has testified that soldiers accused of perpetuating crimes were investigated, prosecuted, sentenced, and all served out their terms in jails in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In court today, defense lawyer Peter Haynes showed the witness several documents entered into evidence by the defense. The witness identified the documents as including the investigations report into alleged atrocities by MLC soldiers, charges laid out by prosecutors, and judgments delivered by a military court. The documents also included prison records, showing both the sentences handed down to each soldier, the date on which each soldier was booked into the prison, and the date of their discharge.
Prosecutors in the Congolese territory of Gbadolite, where Mr. Bemba had his headquarters, received the investigations report on November 27, 2002, sanctioned the charges on December 3, 2002, and the trials commenced two days later. Mr. Haynes asked if this was a long or normal period between receipt of the report, sanctioning charges, and start of trials. The witness said this was not a long period, explaining that the trial could not have started before the prosecutor received the investigations report.
Soldiers found guilty were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 24 months. After the witness had reviewed prison records for the convicted soldiers, Mr. Haynes put to him a question critical to both the defense and prosecution case: “The prosecution in this case has repeatedly suggested that those convicted at the Gbadolite court martial were pardoned and released shortly afterwards, after servicing a few weeks of their sentence. Having reviewed the documents, what do you say to that assertion?”
At this point, prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson interjected. “I think the question is correct but in order to be fair, it is fair to point out that witnesses have testified to that effect,” he said. Mr. Haynes then asked the witness whether the convicted soldiers served the sentences handed to them.
The witness said the convicted soldiers served their full terms. He pointed out that what prison records presented in court omitted was showing the dates on which the suspects were arrested. “In the calculation of a sentence, they took into account the date on which the suspect was arrested,” said the witness. He pointed to the case of Captain Willy, who, records showed, received the longest sentence of 24 months. He was convicted on December 7, 2002 and released on November 20, 2004.
The witness said this soldier had been under arrest since November 30, 2002, hence he served his sentence less the time he had spent in pre-conviction detention. The records for several other soldiers showed they were released about a week to the end of their jail terms.
The witness said that at the time of the release of this individual in November 2004, Gbadolite, including its prosecuting office, prisons, and tribunals, was under the control of the Congolese government, as the MLC had since joined the unity government.
‘Witness 48’ also recalled how, at the start of 2001, he advised Mr. Bemba to set up military courts in territories of Congo that the accused’s armed group controlled. At the time, military officers who had previously sat on the military courts had fled following years of fighting.
“The MLC put in place a court martial system. I suggested to Mr. Bemba that we go to the normal situation relating to military situation and have a court martial and a superior court,” said the witness.
He said the military justice system set up by the MLC fell under the group’s justice ministry but was operated jointly with its defense ministry. Garrison courts were set up at lower levels to try non-commissioned officers and foot soldiers. Also, a superior war council was established to deal with appeals from lower courts and to try cases of crimes committed by senior officers.
The trial continues tomorrow with the cross-examination of the witness by the prosecution.