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OPENING STATEMENTS BY VICTIMS’ LAWYERS AT BEMBA TRIAL

Below is an unofficial transcript of the opening statements by legal representatives of participating victims at the start of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on November 22, 2010. The statements were delivered by legal representatives Marie-Edith Douzima Lawson and Assingambi Zarambaud, as well as Paolina Massidda, the Principal Counsel of the Office of the Public Counsel for Victims at the ICC. 

Mr. Assingambi Zarambaud:

As the saying goes, no matter how long the night is, the day will always break. The night of the victims of the mercenaries of the self proclaimed general Jean-Pierre Bemba did not only continue until the night of October 2002 to March 2003. It also lasted from March 2003 to this important day of 22 November 2010, that is, today. But that night will continue for the entire duration of this trial, that is, for a few months and maybe even a few years. It is also after justice would have been rendered that the victims will be able to begin the process of rebuilding to the extent possible. This is neither a reproach nor a regret, and slowness is part of justice so long as everything does not become marred. There are thousands of victims and this delay is due to the volume of work that has been done. 

Everyone knows Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo who is a warlord and created the state at the southern border of the CAR. He was at the same time the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch of that state. He [was] Vice President of the Republic [of the Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC)] and also a senator. Everybody knows the country from which he came and where the mercenaries came from to come to the CAR. 

Everyone knows the DRC that some people refer to as a geological scandal because of the mineral riches. This is a country of more than 2.4m square kilometres with millions of inhabitants. Everyone also knows that country because it is the country of Patrice Emery Lumumba who was a great hero in the cause of unity and fraternity in Africa. But how many people know the victims, the poor small traders, and the poor small farmers who are simply represented by numbers in this courtroom. Who knows those women who were raped sometimes in the presence of husbands and children? Who knows them? 

The Republic of Central Africa is also little known. Today, it is difficult to have someone understand where the CAR is located. Sometimes you have to say that that is the country of emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa and then people know what it is. But this is also the country of Barthelemy Boganda. Boganda was also a great hero of the cause of unity and fraternity in Africa. He was not as well known internationally as Patrice Lumumba possibly because he died before the independence of his country. 

In a nutshell, the CAR is bordered to the north by the Republic of Chad, to the east by Republic of Sudan, to the west by Cameroon and to the south by the DRC and Congo. The fact that mercenaries came from the DRC, that is from the country of Patrice Emery Lumumba to perpetuate massacres and cause distress in the CAR, that is the republic of Barthelemy Boganda, this is a great insult to that great defender of African fraternity. It is a great insult to the fraternity that has always united the two neighboring countries of the DRC and CAR that cannot be tolerated. 

At the current stage of the proceedings, the reality of the crimes that were perpetuated can not be disputed. Women were raped, there was pillaging and there were massacres. These are facts that are intangible. Obviously, we may well be asked to produce witnesses, and when a woman will say you were raped – that I was raped in front of my children and husband, they will be told that these are relatives, and so this cannot be accepted. You have to have medical certificates, and so on, to prove that there is rape. In cases of rapes, the women are asked to produce so many details that sometimes they prefer to stay quiet to suffer and lose their dignity but I believe that will not be the case in this international tribunal.

From October 2002 to March 2003, the self proclaimed general Jean-Pierre Gombo traveled on several occasions to the CAR where he discussed with President Ange-Felix Patassé who had invited him. More than once he travelled to Sibut – that is one of the locations where violence took place. Nevertheless, he claims not to know what happened. He says that he was not informed. So I am saying that four questions might arise. 

First of all, during the period under review the DRC itself was partially occupied by foreign armies and mercenaries from other countries. Why is it then that Jean-Pierre Bemba who is a general did not send his troops to fight against those mercenaries occupying his own country rather than send them to the CAR, and for what purpose? 

The second question that arises is: Not being a leader of a state that is internationally recognized, in what capacity and for what purpose did he send mercenaries – because this is how we must refer to them – to the CAR? 

Thirdly, did he make the effort that is reading the CAR constitution or asking President Ange-Felix Patassé who says he invited him to that country? Did he ask him the question to know whether the president of a country had the authority of call an army into his country to fight a war without an authorization from the country’s parliament? I don’t believe so.

Fourthly, the self-proclaimed general Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo does not deny having traveled to the CAR. He does not deny having discussed several times with the then President Ange-Felix Patassé. Now, given that there were acts of violence when he was discussing with the president, didn’t he at least discuss the situation that was prevailing? He didn’t think about that? Are we to suppose that when he met with President Patassé, he only discussed the rain and the good weather? The court will have to know that. 

I am saying that we will obtain answers to those questions thanks to your jurisdiction. And by obtaining answers to those questions, I have absolutely no doubt you will render justice to the people who were the victims of those horrible acts, and you will make it possible not only for those people to rebuild their lives, [not] only for CAR to have justice rendered, but you will make it possible for humanity and specifically Africa to make sure that those who want to continue on this path should know that impunity is no longer allowed and if people to continue to perpetrate such acts, they will find themselves also before the ICC and they will be punished. It is because of that that the victims will follow the proceedings with all the trust and confidence inspired by the probative evidence and information in these proceedings that will make it possible to render justice to the victims. 

Ms. Marie-Edith Douzima Lawson:

I believe we can say today that the hour of truth has arrived. There is a new hope to finally know the truth about what happened and about the atrocities to which the CAR people were subjected to during the period of October 2002 to March 2003. Yes, two years after the arrest of the accused and after at least three postponements of this trial, there are great expectations for those victims who were physically injured. This is a historic moment for them. I can tell you that the CAR, a post-conflict country, had of course prior to that experienced internal armed conflict leading to murders and destruction of property.

However, the perpetrators even though investigated, were never held responsible for their acts. In fact, they were granted amnesty. In 2001, just one year before the ICC became operational, that is before the entry into force of the Rome Statute in July 2002, the MLC troops had already perpetrated acts in parts of Bangui, that is the capital of the CAR, to crash an attempted coup d’état with systematic pillaging as a consequence. The perpetrators were never held responsible and this is how come one year after that, Congolese mercenaries once again came to the CAR and committed abominable crimes, which will be remembered by the Central Africans forever because the people of that country are known to be peaceful, inoffensive, welcoming and hospitable. 

Let me give you a brief background of the situation. In October 2002, the then president of the CAR, Ange-Felix Patassé, faced with an attempted coup d’état conducted and carried out by the rebellion of his chief of staff, appealed to Jean-Pierre Bemba to provide him with military assistance. Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was then the president and commander-in-chief of the MLC, which was a rebel movement sent his troops to him, commonly known as the Banyamulenge. These troops penetrated into the capital Bangui after crossing the Oubangui River, which was not secured at the time, before advancing into other towns in the country. 

After having reconquered the areas occupied by the CAR rebels, the Congolese mercenaries organized themselves into groups and engaged in the acts that are the subject of the current proceedings. These were widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population within the context of an armed conflict. That is not in dispute. In fact, CAR civilians were shot in cold blood or their throats slit because they tried to resist the pillaging of their property or the property of their close ones or simply because they were suspected of supporting the CAR rebels. Others saw their close family members abducted forever. This means that they were not able to bury them, which is very painful. 

The pillaging was automatic and was carried out from house to house. Even at places where people were killed they took away everything that they could find, even domestic animals and whatever they could not take away, they destroyed.  Rape is a great part of the charges against Jean-Pierre Bemba. Frequently, collective rapes were carried out against women and children, even those who were menstruating.

Rape was carried out against children and even elderly people and these also included men, which had not happened before in our country. This happened in public. These acts were accompanied by beating, by weapons sometimes used as instruments of rape. Rape was used as a weapon of war with a purpose of intimidating, humiliating, terrifying and punishing the members of the civilian population suspected by those demons of complicity with the Central African rebels.

These crimes had devastating effects within the CAR and caused great distress in general and specifically for the victims who will suffer the after-effects for their entire lives. In fact, the victims of rapes are mostly vulnerable people. They are rejected by the society because they are considered as having been soiled. They are stigmatized, traumatized, and many of them were infected and later died. Some of them even committed suicide.

In Africa in general and in the CAR in particular, the death of a family head is an enormous loss because the head of the household is usually responsible for more than a dozen people including minors, who are now left to their devices on the streets because they are precocious victims. The victims of the pillaging saw the fruits of several years of work disappear in a single day, making them even poorer than they had already been. The victims that we represent and who have been admitted to take part in these proceedings, their interests are concerned because they suffered a prejudice because of the crimes charged against the accused. It is, in fact, the existence of the victims which justifies the prosecution and that is why the Rome Statute gives pride of place to the rights of victims. 

The inability of the Central African courts to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of those crimes despite the clear will of the CAR had made those victims afraid that they will never receive justice. Fortunately the ICC is here. This trial will therefore lead to great hope particularly since this is the trial of someone who is considered as very powerful and still known as a warlord. It is indeed high time to put an end to the impunity of those who believe that they are above the law, who believe that they are untouchable for one reason or the other. This will be a great event which will certainly appeal to the conscience of the big and the powerful who do not have any respect for human beings.

Jean-Pierre Bemba is accused of having acted as a military commander within the meaning of Article 28 of the Rome Statute, which governs the ICC. In effect, it has been broadly established that the accused person occupied the position of commander-in-chief and president of the MLC troops. This became known through the statements of witnesses but also through the interviews given by the accused himself who stated his own position within the MLC and this information was disseminated through several documents published nationally and internationally and which made mention of that position. It was also clearly mentioned in internal documents.

Because of his strategic and decisive position as general, commander-in-chief and president of the MLC, the individual responsibility of the accused person as a military leader is in fact in play. It can not be otherwise, given that one of his commanders told his troops, “You do not have any relatives, you do not have any wives, you are going there [CAR] and you will destroy everything, this is war. Jean-Pierre Bemba sent you to kill and to have fun.” Crimes were committed on a large scale by those soldiers, leaving the population of CAR in a state of total desperation.

These were serious crimes committed against civilians who did not do anything. They did not take part in fighting that did not involve them. Furthermore, the civilians did not do anything to their attackers. All the victims have stated that the MLC troops which were easily identifiable because of their language, their accent and in fact those soldiers themselves introduced themselves to their victims as such and were even courageous enough to explain the purpose of their mission. Jean-Pierre Bemba must therefore be held responsible for his acts and his crimes before the ICC and particularly before the people of the CAR, which is attached to justice and peace.

Ms. Paolina Massidda:

I am speaking to you on behalf of those who are still waiting on their status in this affair, those persons who have been authorized to express their views and concerns given the exceptional circumstances that did not make it possible for the chamber to rule on their applications before the beginning of the trial. I will therefore speak in their names and will try to convey as truthfully as possible, their stories and their desires. 

In the course of my presentation I will simply refer to them as victims, and I’ll be using this word in the broad sense of the term since the events that unfolded between October 2002 and March 2003 affected practically the entire population of the CAR.

To break with one’s silence, to a large extent, this is what victims I represent today aspire to. To break the silence of the world with regard to the terrible events that they were confronted with, silence as an obstacle to justice and the voice as a first step towards establishing the truth and towards gaining access to justice. To break with one’s silence to liberate oneself, and to construct a support system within one’s community in order to exist in spite of the weight of the past. To break with one’s silence in order to be heard and to make known the injustices suffered and so as to show one’s experiences. To break with one’s silence  in order to finally understand that what took place cannot be excused, cannot be justified and in so doing, no doubt should be left and there should be no ambiguity about the nature of the crimes committed.

One should cry out that such things should not happen again. There should be no new victims of this kind to break with one’s silence and to emphasize words and acts and to identify crimes that correspond to the suffering and to the damage the victims suffered.

One should thus provide an answer to what happened. The victims that I represent will all bear witness to – in light of the events that happened to them – the nature of particularly cruel crimes they were the victims of. They will also bear witness to the widespread nature of these crimes.  

They were widespread with regard to the scope of the attacks, and the nature of the crimes was widespread. They were widespread in a geographical sense. They covered all the areas from Bangui to the ends of the city, PK12, PK22, the Fou neighborhood, the Boy-Rabé neighborhood. They were committed from Ngota to Ngale to Mongoumba in Boale, in Bossemptélé, Bossembélé, Bozoum, and in Sibut. These crimes were numerically significant because entire families were affected, entire communities were affected as well. There was no exception. These crimes were widespread and had no limits when it comes to the age of the victims and their sex. These crimes had no limits with regard to the vulnerability of some of these victims.

These crimes had not limits in regard to vulnerability of victims, and finally, these crimes were widespread in terms of the nature of the crimes. The victims were affected in their humanity, moral, physical and material well-being was affected. Their houses were looted, pillaged, destroyed and nothing was left to them. Sometimes they were occupied for a day, three days, weeks, months and even the most insignificant item was taken away. Everything that could be used was pillaged or destroyed. Beds, furniture, chairs, tables, roofing, doors frames, window frames, shoes, clothes, food stuffs, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, certain sums of money, the savings that was for the survival of their families.

Their cattle was decimated. Their shops and revenue from their shops was stolen, as well as their drinks. Everything was pillaged and destroyed and sometimes burnt: their goods, their bags of cassava, rice, corn, their bags of smoked fish, or smoked meats, their palm oil, their baggage, their straw bags that they used when they were on the roads in returning from voyages or when they were in the market, all these items were stolen. The perpetrators entered their houses, their shops, their fields, their farms, concessions, their churches, markets, schools, hospitals, medical centers and ports.

Some of the victims had to carry their own goods that had been stolen by the Banyamulenge. Often they had to transport these goods that were to serve for their survival but were also to serve as booty for the troops involved. And they had to transport them in the direction of the DRC, to the banks of the river.

Apart from being humiliated and taken hostage as part of labor force, they also suffered moral and physical suffering and material damage. This pillaging was often accompanied by damage inflicted on their morale, by physical damage, by insults, verbal aggression, their dignity was insulted, they were wounded and tortured. Other victims saw their sons, daughters, mothers, sisters, uncles, neighbors and aunts shot down in cold blood. They would have their affairs looted, then killed. Killed then looted, tortured, shot down, raped, assassinated. 

Some of these victims were abandoned, were stripped of their clothing and left on the roads after having lost everything. Or they could dress themselves with the courage and scrap of dignity they could grab onto. The pillaging perpetrated was accompanied by destruction or torture, by murder or rape. When it didn’t end terribly, it made the victims relive the situation perpetually. 

After years of efforts, of privations and of work, they had finally managed to construct their own house, to amass certain savings, to feed themselves and their families, but they were then left without anything and had to rebuild everything. Many could not reconstruct their lives and were thus obliged to rent makeshift accommodation, they had to move out and sometimes they had to move to neighboring villages, sometimes to other countries, sometimes they had to go very far from their country to forget what happened to them and to forget the sentiment of lost security. The victims were surprised in their houses at night, or whilst asleep, during the day at market, in fields while pursing their daily commercial activities or when returning from other parts of the country. 

Men from the Cameroon or Congo after having obtained goods that they were to resale in Bangui. They were surprised [in] rivers, in ports, they were surprised in bars, while on their boats, they were surprised on the way to school or in the school itself. They were sometimes arrested, sometimes abducted, illegally confined, some were liberated and managed to flee. They spent many weeks and months fleeing and hiding in the bush, they were exhausted, ill and wounded. Some never returned and there was concern about how they had been affected by these events. And as a result, their families couldn’t find peace.

Men, women and children disappeared and this has been going on for over eight years. Numerous persons were victims of sexual violence with no regard for age. They were victims of collective rape, repetitive rape and these acts of rape would be committed in public, in the street, before their mothers, fathers, sons, sisters, brothers and daughters. They would be hit, pillaged and raped, taken away sometimes to the other bank of the river of Congo. They would be used as women for soldiers, be reduced to a state of sexual slavery and forced to prostitute themselves. They would lose their virginity, they would get pregnant and be sodomized. They would then be abandoned by their husbands, deprived of their children, of their family, family-in-law, they would be confined to silence, forced to lie, to hide and deal with the situation on their own. 

Hundreds of women and also men were humiliated. They were humiliated in the face of their families and in the face of soldiers.  They were infected by maladies, contaminated, the body would be so shocked that there were cases of miscarriage and babies would be lost. Many of the victims have difficultly in rebuilding their life. They have not enough money for medical care. Some have died as a result of the lack of medical care and they haven’t managed to resist the shock and the pain suffered. They haven’t managed to resist the wound, the void, feeling of absence, others are weakened by the day. The trauma that is linked to what they lived is still part of their daily lives. There is not a single victim that hasn’t been affected by the events that were experienced about eight years ago from 2002-2003.

Not a single victim can talk about these events without clenching his or her teeth or even shedding a tear. It would be erroneous to say that the victims have no expectations. However, their expectations are legitimate and they are the expectations of any individual with regard to the court of justice. They expect for justice to be rendered, to [be] impartial, independent, transparent and effective. They expect to be listened to and to have the rights of the participants respected. They expect protective and restorative justice that can establish truth for the crimes that were committed.

The complexity of the scenarios, of the experiences of each and every victim, will lead the court to realize that it isn’t confronted just with shadows from the past but also with the weight of heavy shadows that numerous victims still trail behind them and will trail in the future, and this is related in part to the absences that are felt, to the voids that they feel, to the suffering that is inscribed in the memories of these victims and in their bodies. It is also linked to illnesses that numerous victims trail behind them like a veil that do not only affect their present and their future, but also the place that they have within their community and their capacity to communicate or to integrate within a group, where having a voice or speaking up is sometimes identical with being stigmatized or results in stigmatization.

Therefore, there have been crimes committed in the past and these crimes have a significant echo in the present and a weight that is difficult to avoid in the future. The choice of victims to participate in the proceedings is an individual choice, above all, which allows each and every victim through the intermediary of their counsel to tell part of their story, share part of their knowledge of the events. The choice to participate is also sometimes a group experience. It unites members and families that can sometimes be separated by a wall of silence. 

Therefore, I wish that the submissions of the legal representatives in these proceedings will convey to the participants and to the chamber and make it possible for the chamber to meet the challenge, to listen to these victims who will reflect the individual preoccupations that they have. We all have to bear in mind that the story we are going to try and tell in these proceeding doesn’t just reflect the past but it’s also a path that leads into the future and into the present.

Let us remember that during these proceedings, it is the victims that will be at the heart of the proceedings and they are the sad reason for the proceedings. And their heartbeat will accompany every stage. Therefore, behind the legal and technical terms used, that each participant will have to become familiar with, let’s not forget that there are hundreds of children, women and men who have expectations and who are following the development of these proceedings very carefully. The victims I represent today thank you for the possibility of participating in these proceedings and for having their voices heard, to be able to tell you their truths, their concerns and their opinions.

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