Today, judges trying Jean-Pierre Bemba questioned the testimony of witness who lived in the Central African Republic (CAR) during an armed conflict but testified that he neither saw nor heard of atrocities by groups that were fighting.
‘Witness D04-066,’ who concluded his testimony this afternoon, insisted that although he supplied foodstuffs to Mr. Bemba’s Congolese troops during their deployment in the armed conflict, he never saw or heard of crimes being committed by those soldiers. He said he only heard of one case of pillaging, allegedly committed by rebels led by François Bozizé.
After the prosecution and victims’ lawyers completed cross-examining the witness, judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding) and Joyce Aluoch questioned the witness. Judge Steiner said there was fighting in various parts of the country, including those that the witness visited. She asked how he could have failed to hear about or witness any crimes.
The witness responded that Bangui, the country’s capital, was “calm at the time and there was movement throughout the town.” He added, “Even on the 15th of March when I made the crossing, things were still moving around [normally],” referring to the date in 2003 when rebels captured power, and he fled the city.
Yesterday, this witness stated that he visited various Central African towns, such as Bangui, Damara, and PK 55 but never heard or witnessed any abuses perpetuated by fighters belonging to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).
Judge Aluoch referred the witness to his testimony yesterday, in which he stated that he did not see Bozizé soldiers commit any crimes but had heard guards say those soldiers carried out pillaging.
Judge Aluoch then asked, “The same way you heard from guards, did you not hear the same guards or whoever about allegations of MLC pillaging or doing any acts that we have gone over? Was it so selective that the guards were only talking of Bozizé soldiers?”
“The guard who talked to us didn’t talk about MLC but [said] Bozizé soldiers who had taken a jeep and some fuel,” replied the witness. He said he only heard of this one incident. “Whatever transpired further in the country I am not aware of … not MLC, not other soldiers.”
General Bozizé led rebels who toppled the government of President Ange-Félix Patassé in March 2003. Mr. Bemba’s troops fought alongside Patassé loyalist forces. Other armed forces active in the conflict included ethnic militia groups, troops belonging to Community of Saharan-Sahel States (CEN-SAD), the regular Central African army, and private militia forces.
As the MLC’s commander in chief, Mr. Bemba is on trial at the International Criminal Court facing war crimes and crimes against humanity charges. Prosecutors allege that the Congolese troops’ progression in the neighboring country was characterized with widespread brutalization of Central African civilians. He denies the charges, arguing that it is Mr. Patassé and not him that was in command of the troops. Besides, that any of the other armed groups active in the conflict could have committed the alleged crimes.
The defense has so far called 15 witnesses. One disappeared when he was scheduled to board the plane to The Hague while 14 have testified. Before hearings adjourned today, lead defense counsel Aime Kilolo-Musamba stated that they were not sure when their next witness would be available testify. The trial is likely to resume on Monday, December 10.