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Identity of perpetrators under focus as witness recounts gang-rape

The identity of soldiers who committed atrocities against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002 and 2003 was under focus in the trial of Jean-Pierra Bemba, where the sole witness who testified this week recounted how Congolese soldiers gang-raped her and killed her brother.

However, while the witness stated that she was sure the soldiers who committed the atrocities were Congolese, defense lawyers doubted that the witness could have been able to tell the nationality of the soldiers.

Testifying under the court-given name of ‘witness 87’, the witness maintained that the soldiers who were committing atrocities spoke Lingala, a Congolese language. Defense attorney Nick Kaufman asked the witness how she was able to recognize the language spoken by the soldiers as Lingala, yet she had said in her statement that she only spoke the Central African dialect Sango and a little French. The witness answered that although she did not understand Lingala, she could recognize it when it was spoken.

Testifying with face and voice distortion, the witness said that by the time Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops arrived in the CAR’s capital of Bangui, the rebels who were attempting to topple the country’s president Ange-Felix Patassé had already withdrawn.

“After these [Congolese] soldiers arrived, I did not see any other soldiers,” she said. The witness added that the rampaging soldiers wore uniforms similar to those of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard but they only spoke Lingala and French.

Defense attorneys asked the witness the distinction between the uniforms worn by the presidential guard and those worn by regular soldiers. She answered that the presidential guard had the insignia “GP” inscribed on their uniforms. However, she said she did not know of any other distinction, such as color, between the uniforms of the regular and the presidential guard soldiers.

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.

The witness also told the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that although she was raped by three men, none of whom used a condom, she was only able to see a doctor seven years later because she did not have money. Her visit to the doctor was facilitated by ICC officials in 2009.

“After you had been brutally raped, why didn’t you go and see a doctor?” defense attorney Mr. Kaufman asked.

“In our country, in order to see a doctor you have to have money. As all the money I had had been stolen [by Bemba’s soldiers] I could not go to see a doctor,” she replied.

At the start of the testimony by ‘witness 87’, Judge Steiner said 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 recommendations 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.

During the cross-examination, defense lawyers stated that rebel troops were still in Bangui at the time the witness was raped. They added that there were many fighting groups in the country at the time other than the MLC. Mr. Kaufman asked the witness whether she knew of various fighting groups which he mentioned. The witness said that she had heard of most of the groups the defense attorney asked about.

The lawyer asked the witness whether she knew a person called Abdoulaye Miskine, who he said helped president Patassé to fight an attempted coup led by sacked army chief of staff François Bozizé.

‘Witness 87’ responded that she had indeed heard that Mr. Miskine was fighting the rebel soldiers.

“Did you hear that Abdoulaye Miskine and his group were very violent people?” Mr. Kaufman asked.

The witness replied, “I have no information about that.”

When the defense attorney asked the witness whether she had not heard about a massacre carried out at a meat market in Bangui by Miskine and his troops, the witness responded that she had heard of the incident. On Friday afternoon, ‘witness 87’ completed her testimony.

Mr. Miskine, reportedly a Chadian national, was an aide to Mr. Patassé from 1993 to 2003. He was in charge of a special unit outside the army that fought coup attempts by Mr. Bozizé.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bemba was this week permitted by judges to travel from the detention center in The Hague to Belgium to attend the requiem mass of his stepmother. He returned to The Hague the same day, and from Tuesday was present in court.

Mr. Bemba, whose family lives in Belgium, paid all costs for his travel and will also reimburse the Belgian and Dutch governments for all costs they incurred in handling his travel.

According to a decision made public on January 12, 2011, judges stated that they had allowed Mr. Bemba to travel to the requiem mass of Ms. Efika Lola Saida Josette in Belgium after the accused had sufficiently demonstrated a family link between himself and the deceased.

“The chamber considers that the death of Mr. Bemba’s stepmother is an exceptional circumstance that justifies the chamber exercising its inherent power for humanitarian reasons,” said Judges Sylvia Steiner, Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki.

Under the terms of his short term release from detention, Mr. Bemba and all members of his defense team were not permitted to contact the public or speak to the press to reveal any information relating to his presence on Belgian territory, before and during his stay in the country.

Additionally, judges directed that Mr. Bemba would not be authorized to communicate with anyone, “except for the members of his close family or persons assigned for his protection.” The judges ordered that Mr. Bemba would only be allowed to visit his wife’s residence and, if his stepmother’s remains were not there, the location where they were kept, as well as to attend the requiem mass at Saint-Paul de Waterloo Church.

The trial continues on Monday when the prosecution calls its fifth witness.