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The war crimes trial of the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, opened on Monday, with the first witness recalling the rapes and murders committed by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR). 

The trial is the first to be heard at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in which a military commander is being held criminally responsible for crimes committed by his troops. The trial is also significant because it involves the most prominent individual ever to be tried by the court since it started operations eight years ago. In addition, the trial will hear a great deal of evidence on the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Going by the pseudonym ‘witness 38’, the first prosecution witness told court that Mr. Bemba’s Congolese troops were invited to the CAR by the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to help him fight off an armed insurgency. The witness recalled how Mr. Bemba was given VIP treatment when he travelled to the CAR capital Bangui and addressed his soldiers at a base in a suburb called PK12.

Mr. Bemba, 48, has been in detention at the ICC since July 2008. Although Mr. Bemba was not in the CAR with the troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged, he is on trial because prosecutors charge that he should bear responsibility for not having restrained or punished the soldiers that committed the alleged crimes.

‘Witness 38’ told the court that the troops did not only commit acts of robbery, beatings, and rape, but also acts of persecution. “The people who were not physically beaten were psychologically attacked by Bemba’s rebels. For example, a young person, a soldier asked him to take out his penis, then he poked at the person’s genitals with the barrel of the gun. He was not physically assaulted but he was psychologically assaulted. There were several such incidents,” he said.

The witness added, “They had whips, pieces of wood, and at the end of them they had attached bits of rubber or leather, and they would use these instruments to hit the CAR civilians.” 

Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the witness if the CAR army also committed atrocities against civilians. “I believe that at that time, President Patassé felt that he had been betrayed by his army and that’s why he called on the … rebels of Mr. Bemba. He no longer trusted his army, so he gave the rebels of Mr. Bemba all the leeway to act. This means that the rebels were sort of the leaders of our own army,” responded the witness.

Under cross-examination by the defense, the witness stated that CAR soldiers never committed atrocities against civilians while Mr. Bemba’s troops were in that country. The defense had sought to establish whether the witness was sure that the military men who raped and murdered civilians, and carried out widespread acts of pillaging, were indeed from the MLC.

Defense counsel Peter Haynes on Thursday asked ‘witness 38’ whether the CAR army had collaborated with the MLC fighters while they were in the country.

“To say that they operated together, that would mean that the CAR army were involved in theft and rape. As far as I know, no. The CAR army were reduced to nothing, deprived of their authority,” replied the witness.

However, on Friday the witness conceded that soldiers of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard had also committed some atrocities, particularly at a place known as PK 13. He said an individual called Martin Koumtamadji, a.k.a. Colonel Abdoulaye Miskine, whom he described as the “right hand man” of Mr. Patassé carried out a punitive raid on a market where insurgents trying to topple Mr. Patassé had attempted to set up a base.

On Tuesday when he begun his testimony, the witness described the rape of a girl he said was aged eight or nine years old. “When they [Mr. Bemba’s fighters] arrived, they got into the house, they grabbed the mother but because the young girl was still fresh, they preferred the daughter to the mother. They raped her in front of the mother.”

In his opening statement at the trial, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo declared that evidence would be produced to show that Bemba’s troops used rape as a weapon of war. Mr. Bemba, whose trial is being heard by Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner, Judge Joyce Aluoch, and Judge Kuniko Ozaki, faces two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.

The witness testified with protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym, face and voice distortion, and gave the bulk of his evidence in private session. Although his identity was not revealed, he stated that he organized civilians in suburbs around the CAR capital Bangui to resist the MLC soldiers.

The defense has submitted that there were many military groups in areas the MLC troops operated from, and it was therefore not possible to pin atrocities committed in these areas on any one military group. However, the witness told the trial that it was only the MLC fighters who were committing atrocities against civilians. He also stated that the attitude of the MLC rebels was “aggressive,” “wicked,” and “bad”.

“I do not want to insult them, and I am sorry to say, but their behavior was that of animals,” said the witness.

When Mr. Haynes asked the witness to point out on a map the locations where the troops of Mr. Bozizé were stationed before the MLC went to Bangui, the witness replied that the soldiers were mobile and he could therefore not point to any particular spot. The witness affirmed that soldiers under the command of Mr. Bozizé did not commit any atrocities against civilians. Mr. Bozizé is the current president of the CAR.

Mr. Haynes then asked the witness whether he had not heard Mr. Bozizé’s troops declare that they were ready to “take the country by blood” in reference to their attempt to oust President Patassé by force.

The witness replied, “I was not in contact with those rebels of Mr. Bozizé. In the case of Mr. Bemba’s rebels, I told you clearly that I had contact with some of them.”

Mr. Bemba’s defense has argued that once the MLC rebels crossed from the Democratic Republic of Congo into the CAR, they were under the control of Mr. Patassé and not that of the accused. Indeed, defense lawyers said they wondered why Mr. Patassé and François Bozizé were not on trial instead of Mr. Bemba. Mr. Bozizé led the coup attempt against Mr. Patassé after he had been sacked as the CAR’s army chief of staff.

However, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo stated that at the beginning of their investigations, the prosecution thought Mr. Patassé and Mr. Bemba were equally responsible for the crimes committed in the CAR. “However, the evidence shows that the troops were always under the authority, command, and control of Jean-Pierre Bemba and not under the authority of Patassé and that is why, according to the evidence, we charged Jean-Pierre Bemba.”

Meanwhile, at the start of the trial Mr. Bemba’s defense reeled off a litany of complaints, arguing that the arrest and detention of their client was based on false information that the prosecution provided to judges. The defense also stated that the freezing of Mr. Bemba’s assets at the bidding of the court had rendered it difficult for his defense to conduct investigations before the start of the trial.

“Immediately after the arrest of Mr. Bemba, the prosecution quickly seized all of the assets of Mr. Bemba, including real estate and other types of assets, but on the basis of no rule to be found in the statute,” principle defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss said. “The statute does recognize indeed that it is possible to seize assets and property that may have been the result of crime, but not real estate that Mr. Bemba acquired through a number of companies ten years before he begun his military efforts.”

Mr. Nkwebe stated that whereas judges had in May 2008 declined to issue an arrest warrant against Mr. Bemba due to lack of sufficient evidence, “to get around this difficulty, the prosecutor claimed that Mr. Bemba was on the point of fleeing to an unknown destination, thereby obliging the chamber to issue the warrant of arrest.” The defense lawyer added, “Up until now, the defense has made repeated requests to obtain the items that apparently gave the prosecution grounds to claim that Mr. Bemba was going to flee, but our requests have been in vain.”

Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a legal representative for victims, said rape is a great part of the charges against Mr. Bemba. “Frequently, collective rapes were carried out against women and children, even those who were menstruating,” she said, adding that MLC fighters also raped men and elderly women. According to her, the intention of the MLC rebels was to intimidate, humiliate, and terrify members of the civilian population, who were thought to be opposed to president Patassé.

The defense will continue cross-examining ‘witness 38’ on Monday, November 29.