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Witness says atrocities reduced when Bemba visited his soldiers in CAR

A witness on Monday stated that crimes committed by Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers against Central African civilians reduced when the militia’s leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, visited the country’s capital Bangui and addressed his troops.

Before he addressed the troops, local leaders in Bangui presented a memorandum to Mr. Bemba, in which they informed him that his soldiers were killing civilians and carrying out mass rape.

‘Witness 23,’ who started giving his testimony last Friday, today recounted how Mr. Bemba visited his neighborhood in November 2002. He recalled that Mr. Bemba flew by helicopter to a school yard, then used a Central African Republic (CAR) presidential car to travel to the military headquarters of his troops. The witness added that Mr. Bemba then addressed his soldiers at a maternity clinic.

At the gathering, which was also attended by the local civilian population, Mr. Bemba – dressed in military fatigues – addressed his troops in the Congolese language Lingala. He also addressed the local population in French, the witness added, but did not say what Mr. Bemba said to the local population.

“Do you know what Mr. Bemba told his troops?” asked prosecution counsel Thomas Bifwoli.

“No, I don’t understand Lingala. If he spoke to them in French, I could have understood somewhat but since he was speaking in Lingala, how could I understand?” answered the witness.

He continued, “But I do know that after speaking to his troops, the abuse and violence diminished. I can tell you that, but as for the contents of his speech, I have nothing to tell you.”

The witness also explained how people in his neighborhood selected a delegate to present their complaints to Mr. Bemba. “On that day, we selected a person to act as a delegate and he was from the same neighborhood. He was to represent us and went to the meeting to mention our complaints to him…We selected this person to speak about cases of theft, of rape, about the killings that had taken place, the numerous acts of abuse that had taken place, beatings too.”

Asked if Mr. Bemba said anything after the neighborhood delegate presented the complaints, the witness replied, “He said that he would take care of the matter. He was going to assemble his men and speak to them to resolve the situation. That is what he told us to reassure us.”

The witness stated that the crimes committed by the Congolese soldiers did not completely cease after Mr. Bemba’s visit, but they in fact diminished. He said the crimes that continued to be committed included snatching valuables from civilians who ventured outside their houses in the evenings. The witness said some violence and abuse continued as well.

International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba had effective authority and control over the MLC troops, who allegedly committed crimes against CAR civilians. They contend that Mr. Bemba knew that his troops were committing crimes and did not take “all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.” Mr. Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all five charges he faces.

The MLC troops were in the CAR at the invitation of the country’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé, who sought their assistance to put down a coup attempt. At the time, the MLC was a rebel group fighting the Congolese government.

‘Witness 23’ today told the trial that an ally of President Patassé known as Abdoulaye Miskine also committed some atrocities around Bangui. Before the arrival of the MLC into the country, Mr. Miskine was in charge of a special army unit which spearheaded the campaign against the soldiers who were attempting to topple Mr. Patassé.

However, the witness said, when the MLC entered Bangui and its suburbs, these areas became too dangerous to venture into – even for the Central African presidential guard. He said the MLC killed CAR soldiers who attempted to go to these areas and also recalled that Central African soldiers fought Mr. Bemba’s troops as they transported looted property across the Oubangui river to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The defense is due to start cross examining ‘Witness 23’ Tuesday morning.