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The defense for former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba says it is overwhelmed by the number of victims applying to participate in his trial, which opens next week at the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

In filings to judges, the defense team states that it is so “entangled” in studying the victims’ applications that it can hardly find time to plan for the opening of the long-awaited trial. Information released by judges this week indicates that so far, 135 victims have been allowed to participate in the Bemba trial, and an additional 1,200 applications are being processed.

These numbers are significantly higher than those registered in the two trials currently being conducted by the ICC. In Thomas Lubanga’s trial, there are 103 participating victims, while in the case against Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, 363 victims have been granted the right to participate in the proceedings. 

Prosecutors at the court based in The Hague charge that Mr. Bemba is criminally responsible for two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003.

Mr. Bemba, a Congolese national, has acknowledged that troops from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) military group that he led indeed went to neighboring CAR during this period to help the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, stave off a coup attempt. However, he has denied that he committed the crimes he is accused of. 

Prosecutors allege that Mr. Bemba was the military commander of the MLC troops – although he himself was not in the CAR – and that despite being aware that his troops were committing crimes, he neither stopped nor punished them.

In a November 1, 2010 petition, Mr. Bemba’s lawyers protested that they were given less than two months before the scheduled opening of the trial to analyze more than 900 applications from victims. The defense also stated that it did not have sufficient funds and resources to conclude its investigations and preparations in time for the scheduled opening of the trial on November 22. 

However, both the prosecution and legal representatives of victims participating in the trial have rejected the defense’s petition. Paolina Massidda, the Principal Counsel of the Office of the Public Counsel for Victims at the ICC, termed it “part of the delaying tactics the defense has used since the beginning of the case.”

Judges are yet to pronounce themselves on the defense application, although on November 15 they instructed the court’s registry to assign common legal representatives to victims who are unrepresented. They also stated that the trial would open on Monday, November 22, 2010, although this was not in response to the petition by the defense.

In the two trials currently being conducted by the ICC, victims have been allowed to question defense and prosecution witnesses whose testimonies they feel directly affects their interests. Their legal representatives always attend court, including closed sessions. Additionally, three of the 103 victims taking part in Mr. Lubanga’s trial have given testimony in court. In Mr. Bemba’s trial, there are six dual status individuals, that is, those who are both victims and witnesses. 

While rejecting the defense petition, which suggested that the opening of the trial be deferred, Ms. Massidda said victims were concerned about perpetual postponements of the case and wanted the trial to start at the earliest. She added that some of the more fragile victims, such as the very old and those who were suffering from serious illnesses, were especially concerned by the delays in the opening of the trial.

For his part, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo submitted on November 8, 2010 that the defense petition was “groundless”. He stated that “[a]bsent compelling reasons to postpone the trial, the defense should not alter its prior commitment as it will impact on the rights and interests of parties and participants to the proceedings including the right of the accused to an expeditious trial.”

According to Mr. Ocampo, further delay would in particular significantly affect the well-being of the vulnerable witnesses and may cause them to reconsider their decision to testify. “Several have already expressed concerns about the delay. It will further hamper the process initiated by the [court’s] registry to prepare for the commencement of the trial, affecting the court resources and disturbing the lives of witnesses who made their arrangements to travel to the seat of the court according to the set date.”