War crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops raped young girls, and threatened, beat and shot people who tried to resist the confiscation of their property, a witness said today.
Continuing his testimony from yesterday, the first prosecution witness in the trial of the former Congolese vice president recounted various atrocities he said Mr. Bemba’s troops committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. At the time, the troops were in the country to assist then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé to fight off an armed insurgency.
‘Witness 38’ as he is known, told 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.
Mr. Bemba’s trial is the third being conducted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that came into operation eight years ago.
“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,” the witness stated. He added that some soldiers used spears to flog civilians.
Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the witness if the CAR army was also involved in some of these atrocities. “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.
Yesterday, the witness described the rape of a girl he said was aged eight or nine years: “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.”
The prosecution charges that Mr. Bemba, 48, is criminally responsible as a commander for murder, rape, and pillaging, allegedly committed by his troops in the Central African Republic between 2002 to 2003. Mr. Bemba, a Congolese national, has acknowledged that troops from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) military group that he led went to neighbouring CAR but maintains that once they left Congo they were no longer under his control but that of Mr. Patassé
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 crimes against humanity and three war crimes.
The witness today continued to testify 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 that 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.
With regard to the rapes committed, the witness told the court that none of the girls and women reported the cases, observing that “it’s a question of honor. In our society, certain things are a taboo.” He went on to recount the story of a young woman, who only admitted at her deathbed to having been raped by the MLC soldiers. He said her rapists had infected her with the virus that causes AIDS.
Meanwhile, the witness recalled that Mr. Bemba visited MLC troops at a camp in the K12 suburb near the CAR’s capital Bangui. He said the accused wore civilian attire and carried a baton as he addressed his troops. The witness said cabinet ministers were among the CAR government dignitaries who attended the parade.
Ms. Bensouda asked the witness what Mr. Bemba said at the parade.
“The way the occasion was organized, we were not able to go there, but we wanted to go and tell Mr. Bemba that we were fed up (of the excesses of his soldiers).”
Asked how he knew that the person who addressed the parade was the accused, ‘Witness 38’ replied: “I can state that the man I saw on the football pitch is the man I see here.”
But when Ms. Bensouda asked the witness whether there was a change in the behavior of the MLC soldiers after Mr. Bemba’s visit, defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss protested that this was a leading question. He stated that before the defense commences its cross-examination, it will present to judges a list of 13 leading questions posed by the prosecution for the chamber to rule on them.
The witness also stated that besides his neighborhood he was aware of rapes committed by MLC fighters in other parts of the country. “In other parts there were cases of rape as well … they raped, they looted, when passing through the villages and towns they occupied,”
He stated: “First of all, there was robbery and rape in the houses they would break into. They would take everything they found – radio (sets), telephones, cushions for mattresses.” He added that civilians whom soldiers confronted in streets and did not have any property to hand over – such as mobile phones – were stripped down to their underwear.
Legal representatives of victims participating in the trial are expected question the ‘witness 38’ tomorrow afternoon.