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Witness: Central African rebels did not harm civilians

The fifth prosecution witness in the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial today said local rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) did not harm civilians. Instead, she said, Congolese troops belonging to Mr. Bemba’s group were the ones who raped and killed civilians during late 2002 and early 2003.

Testifying for the second day, ‘Witness 68’ told the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that rebels supporting sacked army chief of staff François Bozizé’s coup attempt against president Ange-Félix Patassé respected civilians.

“They [Bozizé’s rebels] did not harm people. They were just going around in groups. I didn’t see them do anything [evil] in particular,” she said. According to her, the rebels fought alongside Chadian soldiers that wore turbans.

She said she was able to tell that the soldiers committing atrocities were Congolese because they used Lingala, a language she knew was spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“Which language do the soldiers of the FACA [the armed forces of the CAR] speak?” asked trial lawyer Petra Kneur.

“They are Central Africans and when they speak, they speak Sango. If the person knows how to speak French or English, the person may do so,” answered the witness, who testified with face and voice distortion.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) say Mr. Bemba is responsible, as a military commander, for two crimes against humanity and three war crimes stemming from the misconduct of his soldiers while they were in the CAR. The troops, belonging to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), were in the country at the invitation of Mr. Patassé who needed help to put down a coup attempt.

The witness told the court that as fighting raged in her country’s capital during October 2002, she stayed locked up in her house for two days before she decided to flee. She added that it was while she was fleeing that she met the two soldiers who raped her.

Defense lawyer Peter Haynes cross-examined the witness about the radio broadcasts she said she heard informing people that Bozizé’s rebels were within 200 meters of the president’s residence and later announcing the arrival of Mr. Bemba’s troops.

“During the course of the time that you were inside the house, did you see any soldiers at all outside?” asked Mr. Haynes.

The witness replied that at the time the only information she received was from her radio. Nine individuals who lived in her household had fled, leaving only her and her sister-in-law behind. She said her sister-in-law was raped by three men on the day they left the house, and she died in 2005 due to health complications apparently related to that attack.

Mr. Haynes then went on to question the witness about the geographical location of towns and neighborhoods in the CAR capital Bangui relative to the Oubangui River that separates CAR from DRC. He contended that whereas the witness was correct that there were reports of the MLC entering into the CAR on the 27th of October 2002, they were at that point in time away from where she lived.

‘Witness 68’ was also questioned by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, one of the legal representatives of victims participating in the trial.

The trial resumes on Thursday with the defense continuing its cross-examination of ‘Witness 68.’