Today, Jean-Pierre Bemba made a first appearance before a pre-trial judge to face new charges of witness tampering. He appeared together with Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, the lead counsel in his ongoing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Fidèle Babala Wandu, a member of the Congolese parliament.
The accused denied the charges and expressed surprise that the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, chose to issue an arrest warrant rather than deal with the witness tampering allegations during proceedings in the ongoing trial.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers for the accused stated that the new charges had harmed the defense case of Mr. Bemba, whose trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity started in November 2010.
Xavier-Jean Keita, who represented Mr. Kilolo-Musamba, said the defense would write to the judge and raise questions about the timing of the new case. The defense would also “raise issues about the consequences on the main case and also talk about the involvement of the prosecution because the Office of the Prosecutor is a fully-fledged party to the main case.”
Defense lawyers also said Mr. Kilolo-Musamba’s iPad and Blackberry were seized during his arrest, yet they contained “the entire defense strategy” in Mr. Bemba’s ongoing trial.
Cuno Tarfusser, the single judge handling the case, said the items would for now remain in the custody of the court’s registry. The prosecution would only have access to seized documents and items that related strictly to the new charges.
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba, 41, deplored the “strong-arm tactics” Ms. Bensouda employed. He said allegations of forged evidence could have been dealt with during the ongoing trial rather than through an arrest warrant.
“I was surprised to be deprived of my freedom given that I spend most of my time in The Hague within the premises of [the ICC] where I have my offices,” said Mr. Kilolo-Musamba. “If she had called me in advance, I would have attended the summons.”
He said at the time of his arrest, he was coming from a meeting related to an ongoing investigation to help him to identify handwriting experts, and radio transmission specialists who were on duty in Bangui when a disputed radio transmission was made.
“That is the issue at stake,” said Mr. Kilolo-Musamba, referring to the radio transmission and contested handwriting on an undisclosed document. “It is a shame the prosecution made use of these tactics and this way harmed the defense of Mr. Bemba in the main case, which has come to an end as we were already drafting the final submissions.”
Bangui is the capital of the Central African Republic, where Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops are alleged to have committed rapes, murder, and pillaging during 2002 and 2003, over which he is on trial.
Mr. Bemba, 51, said he was very surprised about the witness tampering allegations since the disputed documents had been discussed during the testimony of the last witness that testified in his defense. “Prosecutors were aware of them and had the opportunity to challenge the veracity of those documents,” he said.
“We will produce the necessary evidence because as far as I am concerned, I have been acting in good faith as far as these documents are concerned. Unfortunately this matter has gone to this particular stage,” said Mr. Bemba. He promised to “do all I can to ensure that the truth is found.”
For his part, Mr. Wandu, 57, criticized the manner of his arrest at 3a.m. by 30 policemen. “My house was broken into and my children are traumatized, so I am wondering whether this is in compliance with applicable procedures,” said Mr. Wandu, who is also the deputy secretary general of the MLC.
Judge Tarfusser responded that the court could not influence the way cooperating states carried out arrests: “This is out of our possibility to influence.”
However, Paul Djunga Mudimbi, who represented Mr. Wandu, said although the arrest was the responsibility of the Congolese government, “circumstances of his arrest may make proceedings before your court defective and if the DRC which is a state party to the Rome Statute doesn’t comply with its provisions, your court will end up being tarnished.”
Each of the accused faces two charges. For Mr. Bemba, they are: 1) presenting evidence the party knows is false or forged by ordering, soliciting or inducing his associates to produce such evidence; and 2) corruptly influencing witnesses by ordering, soliciting or inducing his associates to pay money to court witnesses.
The charges against Mr. Kilolo-Musamba are: 1) Presenting evidence the party knows is false or forged by knowingly presenting forged or false documents during trial proceeding in the main case; and 2) Corruptly influencing witnesses by bribing and coaching witnesses to provide false testimony in court in the main case.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wandu is accused of 1) corruptly influencing witnesses by bribing witnesses to provide false testimony in the main case; and 2) presenting evidence the party knows is false or forged by aiding, abetting or otherwise assisting in the crime in presenting evidence that he knows is false or forged.
The arrests of Mr. Kilolo-Musamba and Mr. Wandu were carried out last weekend. Also arrested on similar charges were Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, Mr. Bemba’s defense case manager, and Narcisse Arido, a defense witness in Mr. Bemba’s trial. The two will be transferred to the court pending national proceedings in the Netherlands and in France from where they were apprehended.
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba, a Belgian citizen of Congolese origin, stated today that he waived his right to national judicial proceedings and instead asked to be immediately transferred from Brussels to the ICC because he was eager to cooperate with the court to establish the truth.
The purpose of today’s hearing was to verify the identity of the accused, inform them of charges against them, establish whether they had been informed of their rights, and set the timetable towards the confirmation of charges phase.
The first of a series of status conferences, on the disclosure of evidence by the prosecution, has been set for Wednesday next week. Filings by the prosecution and the defense on the charges and the list of witnesses are scheduled to be finalized in early May 2014, after which a decision on the confirmation of charges will be issued in writing by the judge.