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Another witness recounts gang-rape by Bemba’s soldiers

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s war crimes trial resumed today, with a new witness recounting how the accused’s soldiers gang-raped her, killed her brother, and looted property from their house in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

‘Witness 87’ stated that soldiers from Mr. Bemba’s Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) stormed their home in November 2002 and asked whether there were any rebels hiding in the house. After the soldiers were told that there were no rebels in the house, they grabbed furniture, television and radio sets, and left.

Two hours later, a different group of four Congolese soldiers raided the house. The witness said three of them dragged her out of the house and raped her, one after the other. She said none of the rapists used a condom.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner stated that protective measures had been granted to this witness, including image and voice distortion, the use of a pseudonym, and giving part of her evidence in private session.

The Judge added that “due to the particular vulnerability of this witness as assessed by psychologists,” she had been accompanied to The Hague by a suitable support person. Besides, judges had approved suggestions by psychologists from the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) of the court for a support person from the VWU to sit next to the witness in the courtroom and for a psychologist to be available in court to monitor the witness.

Judge Steiner asked the parties to ask short, simple, open-ended questions; and not to pose embarrassing or unnecessarily intrusive questions. Legal representatives of victims participating in the trial will question this witness before she is cross-examined by the defense.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) contend that Mr. Bemba is criminally responsible for two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) allegedly committed in the CAR between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003. His alleged criminal responsibility stems from his failure to stop or to punish his soldiers who murdered, raped, and pillaged.

Mr. Bemba has acknowledged that troops from his military group indeed went to neighboring CAR during this period to help the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, stave off a coup attempt. However, he has denied that he committed the crimes he is accused of, arguing that once the troops crossed from Congolese territory they were under the command of Mr. Patassé.

In her testimony today, ‘witness 87’ said the soldiers who raped her and looted their home were Congolese although they wore uniforms similar to those of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard. She said they spoke Lingala, a Congolese language.

The witness also told the court that the Congolese soldiers killed her brother, although she did not say in open court why they killed him. She recalled, however, that as they pushed a cart carrying her brother’s remains to a safer suburb of Bangui, they saw Mr. Bemba’s soldiers carrying on with their routine pillaging. “We were pushing the body, the Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] were on both sides on the way. They were taking the shoes of the people who had them,” she said.

‘Witness 87’ will continue her testimony tomorrow afternoon.