The two witnesses who testified this week described war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) and also recounted the multitude of atrocities that were meted out on them and their families by Congolese soldiers.
Like most of the previous witnesses who have given evidence since the start of the trial last November, both of this week’s witnesses were raped by soldiers they said belonged to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Also like previous witnesses, Mr. Bemba’s defense sought to establish that the MLC fighters were not present in the areas where the attacks on the witnesses took place.
The defense also pointed to inconsistencies between the statements a witness made to prosecution investigators in 2008 and his oral testimony this week. The witness admitted that there were some inconsistencies between his testimony in court and the information he provided on his application to participate in the trial as a victim.
During cross-examination by the defense, ‘Witness 23’ admitted that the dates of birth of his children, which he personally wrote on the application form, were wrong. He said the dates he mentioned in court were the correct ones. Equally, he stated that the written statement he made to Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) investigators contained inaccuracies relating to when his daughters were raped by soldiers belonging to Mr. Bemba’s armed group.
During the redirect examination, prosecution counsel Thomas Bifwoli asked the witness to explain the inconsistencies the defense had identified relating to the ages of his children and the place of birth of his brother-in-law.
“What I said to [OTP] investigators was different from what they wrote,” the witness stated.
The witness was then asked whether prosecution investigators did not read his statement back to him before he signed it.
He answered: “They reread the statement to me but I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I didn’t pay attention to the dates on which my children were raped.” He said if he had paid attention, he would have noticed the mistakes in the statement.
The witness also admitted that there was an inaccuracy in a statement he attached to his application to participate in the trial. This statement was prepared with the assistance of an employee of a nongovernmental organization in the CAR. “The person who drafted this document, as I said, didn’t correctly hear what I said and this is why she mentioned 20 years of age. When I reread it, I didn’t notice it … when I have reread it [now] I see that age is not correct. “
In his testimony, ‘Witness 23’ stated that three soldiers from Mr. Bemba’s militia sodomized him in the presence of his wives and children. He also said that over a period of four days, the Congolese soldiers repeatedly raped his children and his wives. Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to control his troops who raped, murdered, and plundered in the CAR during 2002 and 2003.
Defense lawyer Nkwebe Liriss asked the witness how he could have written wrong dates of birth for his children in a form that the witness admitted to completing personally.
“I can’t forget the age of my children. I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t paying attention enough to follow what was going on and that’s why I signed as such,” explained the witness. He said his children would testify at the trial and affirm that the information he provided in court was the correct one. He added, “I also stated to you that I have not received a very high level of education, there are certain things I confuse all the time.”
’Witness 23’ also told the trial that crimes committed by MLC soldiers against Central African civilians reduced when Mr. 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.
When asked by prosecutors if he knew what Mr. Bemba told his troops, the witness replied that he did not because the Congolese leader delivered his speech in Lingala, a language which ‘Witness 23’ said he did not understand.
“But I do know that after speaking to his troops, the abuse and violence diminished,” added the witness. He also stated that Bemba had a meeting with a representative of the local community whom he reassured that he would speak to his troops to stop the crimes they were committing.
‘Witness 23’ also testified that a commander in the MLC said that the then president of the CAR ordered soldiers to kill boys as young as two years old. The killings were to be committed in areas where President Ange-Félix Patassé thought the population supported General François Bozizé, who was attempting to overthrow Patassé’s government.
Mr. Nkwebe read out excerpts from the interview ‘Witness 23’ gave to prosecution investigators, in which he mentioned that a MLC corporal, who was one of the commanders of the militia, talked about Mr. Patassé’s alleged order to kill.
“When you say that you confirm the statements of this corporal, he said President Patassé, is that not correct?” asked Mr. Nkwebe.
“That is correct,” replied the witness. “He said that the president had given the order to come to kill the boys of two years and up because it was there that the rebels were installed and from there, they were carrying out incursions.” The witness quoted the MLC corporal as having said that because they had not found rebels in the area, they got angry and started committing atrocities against civilians.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness 81’ said two of the four men who raped her were commanders in the MLC. She provided their names in closed session. ‘Witness 81’ testified with protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym, as well as face and voice distortion in order to keep her identity secret.
She also stated that the MLC were the only soldiers in her neighborhood at the time of her rape. About the attack on her, she said, “I did not give my consent. I gave birth to a child one week before they raped me.”
“How did you feel while these Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] were raping you?” asked Mr. Bifwoli.
“My pelvis hurt after the injuries of giving birth,” said the witness.
She recalled that a day after her rape, her husband rounded up all their children and fled with them. “He said that he wanted to go away and not return,” she said. He never provided a reason for leaving and has never come back.
Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, one of the legal representatives of victims participating in the trial, asked ‘Witness 81’ what the soldiers did when her husband pleaded with them not to rape her. She replied that they threatened to rape him too if he continued protesting. He then went outside the house.
The witness also talked of widespread rapes and plunder committed by MLC soldiers in the PK22 suburb. “They raped, looted, they stole animals and if people tried to put up resistance, they would hit them,” she said. According to her, these crimes ceased when Mr. Bemba visited Bangui and addressed his fighters.
She said that the MLC soldiers stopped committing atrocities in her neighborhood following Mr. Bemba’s visit.