This week, the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) was dominated by disputes over the date that his troops were deployed in the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), whether those troops respected the group’s military code of conduct, and Mr. Bemba’s ability to issue orders to commanders on the battlefront.
In the witness stand was a former insider in the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who went by the court-given name ‘Witness D04-49.’ He testified for five days, detailing the lead up to the deployment of the Congolese fighters into the neighboring country, the prosecution of soldiers accused of committing abuses, and the operational command structures within the group Mr. Bemba led.
He said the MLC soldiers were “very well” trained and that the group’s training included military discipline and respect for their code of conduct. Under questioning by defense lawyer Peter Haynes, ‘Witness D04-49’ said that military discipline as set out in the MLC’s code of conduct was “absolutely” emphasized during the troops’ training.
“Training did include military discipline and the respect of the code of conduct, which was considered to be a bible according to which one knew what to do,” said the witness.
He stated the group had a strict policy against the use of drugs and alcohol, as well as crimes against civilians. He said individuals who broke the rules were charged by a disciplinary council.
He said that in a bid to popularize their military code of conduct, it was produced in the Congolese language Lingala and in French. “Rules of discipline were drafted in French, but for purposes of getting the soldiers to memorize it, the document was translated,” stated the witness.
Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a lawyer representing victims participating in the trial, asked the witness in what language the training exercises were undertaken. “It was Lingala,” responded ‘Witness D04-49.’ He reiterated that soldiers and senior commanders respected the code of conduct at all times, even during the group’s deployment in the CAR.
Although the position this individual held in the MLC hierarchy was not disclosed, his testimony indicated that he was very senior and worked at the group’s headquarters at Gbadolite in the Congo. The witness stated that he attended a meeting on October 27, 2002 to discuss the deployment of the soldiers. Mr. Bemba, the group’s chief of staff, Colonel Dieudonné Amuli, and General Mustafa Mukiza, who went on to command the contingent deployed into the conflict country, attended this meeting.
‘Witness D04-49’ stated that whereas a small group of MLC fighters traveled to the CAR on October 26, 2002, all of them returned to Congo the same day. Those soldiers had gone to look into logistical and security preparations for deploying 1,500 soldiers in support of that country’s embattled president, Ange-Félix Patassé. The 1,500 soldiers were deployed on October 29 and 30, 2002.
The date of arrival of MLC fighters on Central African territory is a heavily contested issue in the trial. Prosecutors have blamed Mr. Bemba’s fighters for crimes that various witnesses testified about, which were committed as early as October 25, 2002. However, the defense says Mr. Bemba deployed his troops into the conflict on October 29 and that therefore these crimes were committed by other armed groups.
Indeed, Mr. Bemba blames the atrocities committed during the October 2002-March 2003 conflict on the myriad militia groups involved in the fighting, including the faction led at the time by the country’s current president François Bozizé. He says once he heard that some of his soldiers had committed crimes, he promptly investigated and prosecuted them and also asked the UN Secretary General to form an international commission of inquiry.
This week, prosecutors challenged claims by ‘Witness D04-49’ that MLC fighters did not enter the conflict until October 29, 2002, producing a document, which they claimed indicated the troops joined the conflict four days earlier.
The document, which originated from Congolese judicial authorities, related to the prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant Willy Bomengo, a member of the MLC advance party. In the document, this soldier tells investigating officers that he was arrested on October 30, 2002 over allegations that he looted property in Bangui, capital of the CAR, on October 26, 2002.
Prosecuting lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga wondered whether, in the few hours the advance party spent in Bangui on October 26, Lieutenant Bomengo would have managed to do all the things the investigations report mentions that he did ahead of his arrest. These included alleged involvement in pillaging and conducting investigations on four Chadian nationals, including taking their statements and concluding they were innocent of charges not mentioned in court.
Furthermore, the report said that during this period, Lieutenant Bomengo confiscated pillaged goods and handed them to General Mukiza.
‘Witness D04-49’ said, “This was an intelligence officer being questioned, and he was looking for a way to absolve himself” and that he may have backdated the events for his own reasons. The witness also questioned the authenticity of the document.
‘Witness D04-49’ said when Mr. Bemba heard of reports that his soldiers were committing abuses, he wrote to a human rights organization and to Central African authorities calling for investigations to be carried out in order to establish the truth. He said all eight soldiers against whom incriminating evidence was found by military police officers Mr. Bemba dispatched to the battlefront were prosecuted by a court martial.
Another document the prosecution produced was a letter written in January 2003 by Mr. Bemba to the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative. In that letter, Mr. Bemba said he intervened in the conflict on October 27, and that as of October 30, he had acted on reports of abuses being committed by his soldiers, by sending military police investigators to the CAR.
The witness said while Mr. Bemba expressed his intentions to intervene on October 27, “we needed a certain amount of time to put this into action.” He maintained that the deployment of troops started on October 29, 2002.
On Thursday, prosecutors screened video footage that showed Mr. Bemba in his living room, presumably issuing orders to his troops via radio. However, the witness said Mr. Bemba did not have radio equipment at his residence that could have enabled him to command troops on the battlefront.
“Why would he have equipment by his side? That would have unfavorable outcomes on our operations,” said the witness. “I do not think he mastered all the frequencies that experts were familiar with.” The witness added that while radio equipment may have been set up at Mr. Bemba’s home upon request, it would have been returned quickly to the MLC operations center.
Mr. Badibanga also presented numerous communication logs, some of them related to communication between Mr. Bemba and his field commanders requesting for equipment and operational advice. Some of the logs appeared to show Mr. Bemba provided orders directly to his field commanders stationed in the CAR. After reading the logs, the witness said they were not conclusive evidence that Mr. Bemba made direct orders to his field commanders.
While not physically present in the CAR during the conflict, prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba remained in direct and effective command of his troops using a communications center at his residence in Gbadolite.
Meanwhile, the witness said Mr. Bemba’s troops were so busy fighting insurgents that they could not have found time to rape, murder, and pillage civilians. “When you are on the battlefront and bullets are flying…do you think they would have time to be involved in such things?” asked the witness.