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Under cross-examination by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s defense, the first witness to testify for the prosecution in the war crimes trial of the former Congolese vice president today stated that Central African Republic (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 Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) which Mr. Bemba commanded.

Defense counsel Peter Haynes 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.

The witness told court earlier in the week that he organized a resistance against the MLC fighters as they allegedly committed the crimes of rape, murder and pillaging during 2002 and 2003 in a number of suburbs around the CAR capital Bangui.

At the time the crimes were allegedly committed, the MLC troops were in the CAR to support the country’s then president Angé-Felix Patassé against a coup attempt by rebels led by Francois Bozizé who Mr. Patassé had sacked from the post of army chief of staff. Although Mr. Bemba was not in the CAR with the troops, he is on trial because prosecutors claim he should bear responsibility for not having restrained or punished the soldiers that committed the crimes.

When Mr. Haynes asked the witness to point out on a map the spots where Mr. Bozizé troops 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, 48, has been in detention at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since July 2008. His trial – the third to be conducted by the world court – started on Monday this week.

Cross-examination by the defense continues tomorrow.