International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Judges Lift Suspension of Bemba Trial Hearings

Judges have lifted the temporary suspension on hearings in the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Hearings that had been suspended until March 4 will resume “as soon as practicable.”

On Wednesday, judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki said they had lifted the suspension after the accused “waived the opportunity to conduct further investigations, recall witnesses or submit additional evidence” relevant to a possible legal re-characterization of the facts of the charges against him.

On December 13, 2012, judges granted the defense two and half months to collect the additional evidence. Whereas Mr. Bemba is currently on trial for allegedly failing to discipline his soldiers while “he knew” they were committing crimes, judges last September said they might change the facts to read that “owing to the circumstances at the time, he should have known” about the crimes.

While the prosecution had no objection and said the proposed changes would not affect its case, the defense objected, arguing that the course envisaged by the trial chamber would add a new set of facts and allegations against Mr. Bemba.

Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been on trial at the ICC since November 2010. He has denied prosecution claims that he knew his Movement for the Liberation of Congo troops perpetrated crimes against civilians in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003 but failed to stop or punish them.

When judges declined a defense request to appeal the suspension, defense lawyers Peter Haynes and Aimé Kilolo-Musamba on January 28 asked judges to vacate the suspension decision and order the immediate resumption of hearings.

The defense lawyers said they would not recall any prosecution witnesses or present any evidence in response to the envisaged changes. “Given the accused has received no valid, prompt and legally adequate notification of any such allegation, the defense cannot be required at this late stage of proceedings to prepare and answer the possibility of a different basis of liability,” the defense explained.

They also said the time given by trial judges was insufficient to collect the envisaged additional evidence. Furthermore, Mr. Bemba did not have resources to carry out additional investigations, some of which would have to be carried out in hostile countries.

The defense then proposed to call seven witnesses as a priority in order to ensure effective presentation of evidence. These are: ‘Witness D04-21,’ ‘Witness D04-19,’ ‘Witness D04-15,’ ‘Witness D04-18,’ ‘Witness D04-39,’ ‘Witness D04-46,’ and ‘Witness D04-4.’ The first of these witnesses would be available to begin testimony on March 4, 2013.

In their decision lifting the suspension of hearings, judges granted the defense’s request to hear the testimony of ‘Witness D04-19’ via video link, noting that the confidential reasons given by the defense “were well-founded.” They added, however, that in the “absence of any obstacles” the defense should consider having this individual as their first witness when hearings resume.

The defense was ordered to consult with the court’s Registry then report on the earliest possible date for presenting the testimony by ‘Witness D04-19.’

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