International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

EXPERT DESCRIBES TRAUMA AMONG SEXUAL VIOLENCE SURVIVORS AS WITNESS RECOUNTS GANG-RAPE

The second week of the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba has seen an expert on gender crimes and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a victim of rape by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers, take the witness stand. 

There were three key highlights. First, the expert described the PTSD patterns among victims of sexual violence perpetuated by the Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) soldiers. Second, a victim described her personal ordeal at the hands of the Congolese soldiers who gang-raped her and stole her family’s property. Lastly, judges issued guidelines for questioning victims of sexual violence. 

Dr. Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith, a counseling psychologist with New York University who has conducted clinical and psychological assessments of three victims of sexual violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), said that there was extensive sexual violence mainly involving women but also men.

“The types of sexual violence involved multiple gang rapes, at least two or more perpetrators towards an individual,” she said. “The type of sexual violence involved anal, vaginal, oral penetration and witnessing acts of sexual violation against another individual.”

The expert said that some of those raped were as young as 12 years old.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that members of Mr. Bemba’s personal army used rape as a weapon of war when they went to the CAR to help then president Angé-Felix Patassé to ward off a coup attempt.

Although Mr. Bemba was not personally in that country, prosecutors argue that he is criminally responsible for the rape, murder, and pillaging carried out by his troops. This, they say, is because he failed to punish or stop the soldiers from committing these crimes, although he was aware that they were being committed.

“In your professional opinion and experience, what is the effect of sexual violence during war on victims?” asked trial lawyer Petra Kneur. 

“Extensive,” replied Dr. Akinsulure-Smith. “At the individual level there are severe psychological and physical consequences. There are also family and community repercussions, namely those that affect not only the individual but also their community and their families,” she added.

The physical effects could be extensive, she said, and could include tissue tears in the vaginal, bladder, and rectum area. There could also be other extensive injuries to the reproductive system, including complications associated with miscarriages for women who become pregnant.

“In terms of the psychological consequences, those are the ones that are much more difficult to document. Many patients say ‘the physical scars heal but the emotional scars stay with me’. We see extensive PTSD, depressive symptoms, and anxiety-related symptoms,” said the expert. 

She said for women who had been subjected to sexual violence, there was also “the stigma of having been used, being seen as damaged goods if you will.” The expert also explained that “in addition to the physical and psychological consequences, there is also the shame, guilt, and blame of the victims. That is what I saw in talking to people in Bangui and also in Sierra Leone.”

On Tuesday, the third prosecution witness started giving evidence. Using the pseudonym ‘witness 22,’ she described to the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that MLC soldiers stormed her house, gang-raped her, stole ducks and goats, and shot the family dog. 

Before she started testifying, Judge Steiner described the witness as “very vulnerable,” and that she had been granted protective measures such as voice and face distortion, and the use of a pseudonym. When she testified, the witness said that she pondered suicide after being gang-raped.

“Can you describe to court how you felt during the assault?” asked Ms. Kneur. 

“When they brutalized me, after I got up and I found my entire family, we fled. That day I wanted to commit suicide,” she replied.

The prosecuting attorney asked the witness whether any of the three men who raped her wore a condom. The witness replied that none of them wore a condom. She said all three of them ejaculated in her. 

The witness told court that MLC troops attacked their home on October 26, 2002, and gang-raped her at gunpoint. She said she was aware of other women who were gang-raped by the Congolese soldiers. 

Meanwhile, on Thursday judges directed parties to the trial to exercise greater caution in questioning rape survivors who are giving testimony. They said ‘witness 22’ had been granted additional special protection measures. 

“All parties should ensure that the witness is guided through her testimony by using short, simple, open-ended questions, with questions being asked in a nonconfrontational, non-pressuring manner,” said Judge Steiner. “More importantly, parties are reminded that when a witness is questioned about sexual violence, they should formulate questions using appropriate language to avoid embarrassment and unnecessarily intrusive questions.”

The judges also stated that in accordance with Rules 70 and 71 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, they would prevent any attempt by the parties to ask questions directed at: (1) Inferring consent of the victim for the sexual violence suffered by reason of any words or conduct, silence or lack of resistance; (2) Questioning the credibility, character or predisposition to sexual availability of the witness by reason of the sexual nature of the prior or subsequent conduct of the witness; and (3) Demonstrating the prior or subsequent sexual conduct of the witness.

Over the previous two days, ‘witness 22’ had repeatedly recounted how the Congolese soldiers gang-raped her. On Tuesday, Ms. Kneur said the prosecution believed the victims had waited for eight years to be heard in the court and they may want to take the opportunity to tell their stories. 

She added that, “so to a certain extent we may want to leave it to the victims to tell their story. However, considering the prosecution’s interest to contribute to expeditious trial proceedings and to minimize any potential retraumatization of the victim, in these instances we would only question the witnesses very briefly, with short direct questions.”

Earlier in the week, lead defense attorney Nkwebe Liriss faulted the prosecution for repeatedly questioning the witness about the rape incident and suggested that in its cross-examination, the defense would desist from that kind of questioning. However, later the defense declared that it would, after all, take the witness through similar questioning. 

But when they cross-examined the witness, the defense only asked a few questions about the rape. Most of the questioning related to how sure the witness was that the soldiers who raped her were from the MLC and not the CAR’s army, and indeed about the presence of other fighting forces – besides Bemba’s – in the area where the witness lived. 

In her testimony, Dr. Akinsulure-Smith, the counseling psychologist, stated that there was a link between PTSD and ability to recollect events linked to sexual violence. She said that PTSD impacted brain function, thereby creating cognitive and memory problems. It also affected the ability to remember the chronological order of events, or names of places. 

She also told the trial that she had found that survivors of sexual violence often had sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS.

“Could you please tell us what, in your opinion, the effects of these diseases are?” asked Ms. Kneur.

There was often a lot of stigma attached to these diseases, replied Dr. Akinsulure-Smith. “Not only does the individual have to deal with the physical aspects of it, but they also have to deal with the social reactions of family members, community members and society members where often if it is known they have these diseases as a result of the sexual experience, they are rejected, at times laughed at, ostracized from their communities.”

1 Comment
  1. I’M MOST INDEBTED ABOUT THE INFORMATION REGARDING RAPE AND LOOK FOWARD TO SEE MORE OF IT.

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