The first witness to give evidence in Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial took the witness stand today and recalled how he heard former Central African Republic (CAR) president Ange-Félix Patassé announce that he had asked Mr. Bemba to send him soldiers to help fight off a coup attempt.
‘Witness 38’, as he was known in court, also described that he saw Bemba’s soldiers on the day they stormed into a town in the CAR and then witnessed how they promptly turned to pillaging civilians’ homes and businesses.
The witness testified with protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym, face and voice distortion, and partial private session testimony.
Mr. Bemba, 48, faces two charges of crimes against humanity and three war crimes charges resulting from his alleged failure to stop or to punish his troops as they committed crimes against the civilian population in the CAR during 2002 and 2003. According to prosecutors, his Congolese troops were in the country at the invitation of Mr. Patassé, who faced an armed insurgency that threatened to topple his regime.
Mr. Bemba, who was personally not in the CAR while his Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) fighters allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged, yesterday pleaded not guilty to all five charges he faces.
‘Witness 38,’ the first prosecution witness, is among the overview witnesses prosecutors say will give evidence on the general context of the events and crimes Mr. Bemba is accused of.
Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the witness why the MLC troops went to the CAR.
“Patassé himself made that statement on the radio that Bemba was his son,” replied the witness. “He said if something was burning next door in your neighbor’s house, you could do something. He was calling upon Bemba [to help him]. He even said so on the radio.”
Ms. Bensouda asked the witness how he knew the soldiers he saw were Bemba soldiers.
The witness replied that the MLC soldiers wore uniforms, boots, and berets that were different from those worn by CAR soldiers. Besides, “physically they did not look like Central Africans.”
‘Witness 38’ also stated that he heard a lieutenant whose name he said was Coup-Coup announcing on Radio Centrafrique that they were Bemba’s soldiers, and they had repulsed the rebels who were trying to overthrow Mr. Patassé.
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 yesterday 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, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated yesterday that at the beginning of their investigations, they 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.”
Today’s witness drew a map of a place known as Point Kilomètre 12 (or PK 12), a suburb of the CAR capital Bangui, where prosecutors claim some of Bemba’s alleged crimes took place. The witness pointed out the areas where the MLC rebels set up bases, as well as other landmarks such as a school, hospital, and a football field. It was not clear what the intention of this sketching exercise was.
The defense has said that there were many military groups in areas where the MLC troops were, and it was not possible to pin atrocities committed in these areas on any one military group.
Tomorrow afternoon, ‘witness 38’ will continue his testimony.