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Witnesses testify that Bemba’s fighters raped men, women, and children

This week the trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba continued to hear testimony from individuals who were raped by soldiers allegedly belonging to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the military group that he founded and commanded. The judges heard testimony that Mr. Bemba’s troops raped men, women, and children. 

On Monday, ‘Witness 68’ commenced her testimony, and told the trial, presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner, that she was raped by two MLC soldiers while a third stepped on her arms to make sure she remained on the ground. The witness also said that on the same day she was raped, her sister-in-law was gang-raped by three soldiers and passed away in 2005 due to health complications apparently related to that attack. 

‘Witness 68’ herself explained that  following her rape, medical examinations established that she had HIV/AIDS, although she was not able to tell whether the Congolese men who raped her were the ones who infected her with the virus. 

Once ‘Witness 68’ completed giving evidence, the prosecution called their sixth witness on Friday. Going by the pseudonym ‘Witness 23,’ he recounted how three MLC fighters raped him in front of his wives and children, and then went on to rape his wives and children as he watched. He said the soldiers shot one of his wives dead, although he did not say in open court why they shot her. 

Both witnesses who testified this week made use of protective measures, including the use of pseudonyms, face and voice distortion, and giving part of their evidence in closed session. 

At the start of the week’s proceedings, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said that in view of an assessment of ‘Witness 68’ by a psychologist from the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), a support person from the VWU would sit next to the witness in the courtroom and a psychologist would be available in court to monitor the witness.

Judges also upheld recommendations by VWU psychologists that the witness should be asked short and simple, open-ended questions. Judge Steiner asked the parties to put questions to ‘Witness 68’ in a nonconfrontational manner, and to ensure that embarrassing questions were avoided or formulated as delicately as possible. 

During her testimony, trial lawyer Petra Kneur asked the witness to describe how she feels at present.

She replied, “My spirits are low. I have a tendency to depression, and when I see a soldier or a man with a weapon, I am afraid. Even on a public road, I get very afraid.”

The prosecution has said that MLC soldiers infected Central African women with HIV, when they allegedly carried out widespread rape, murder, and plunder in 2002 and 2003. The troops were in the country to help its then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to beat back a coup attempt. Mr. Bemba, the head of the MLC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) due to his alleged failure to stop or punish the rampaging troops.

‘Witness 68’ said the rampaging soldiers spoke Lingala, a Congolese language she was familiar with as she had met several Congolese women that spoke it. She also stated that rebels supporting sacked army chief of staff François Bozizé’s coup attempt against 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 Ms. 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.

For his part, ‘Witness 23’ said that over a period of four days, the Congolese soldiers repeatedly raped his children and his wives. “When they felt the need to sleep with a woman, they would come back [to my home],” he said.  He added that the soldiers shot one of his wives dead.

He stated that his rape ordeal lasted about four hours, from 10:00 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m. “My wives and my children were all present. The one who left me, she was the one who was able to get away and the other one, after some gunfire occurred, she collapsed and she fell ill immediately,” said ‘Witness 23.’ “The third [wife] remained. She was there and she saw everything. Together with my wives and my children, we were submitted to all that.”

Prosecuting attorney Thomas Bifwoli asked the witness how he felt being raped in front of his wives and children.

“I felt as if I was a dying man,” the witness replied. “Later on, every time I saw a Zairian [Congolese] national, I always have this feeling that I want to get hold of him and strangle him. But I can’t do anything.”

In his statement at the start of Mr. Bemba’s trial last November, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated that MLC soldiers raped Central African men in public so as to destroy their authority and their capacity to lead.

“The message behind these rapes was particularly evident from MLC’s targeted and selective raping of men, men in positions of authority, community leaders and protectors of the communities,” he said.

He also stated that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers took his vehicle, his tapioca flour mill, and his generator set, among other valuables. “I was someone who had a lot, but I was left with nothing,” he said.

‘Witness 68,’who was the fifth prosecution witness in the Bemba trial, also told the court about the plunder allegedly committed by Congolese soldiers. She said the soldiers who raped her also grabbed her bag that contained clothes and food.

During the cross-examination, defense counsel Peter Haynes showed ‘Witness 68’ a map of the city of Bangui and asked her to pinpoint the presidential palace and the neighborhood in which she was assaulted on October 27, 2002. Mr. Haynes then stated that the witness was raped in an area that was under the control of Bozizé’s rebels. He added that no soldiers of the MLC entered the CAR until October 30, 2002.

Mr. Haynes added that while the witness was correct that there were reports of the MLC entering into the CAR on October 27, 2002, they were at that point in time away from where she lived.

Meanwhile, on Thursday ‘Witness 68’ expressed surprise when the defense produced a copy of her medical certificate, which she purportedly submitted while applying to participate in the trial. The witness said she did not submit the certificate because she had lost it.

Equally, she stated that the hand-written account of her rape ordeal that was appended to her application was not written by her. She said she had not seen either the certificate or the handwritten account before the defense showed them to her today.

‘Witness 68’ stated that after her rape by two soldiers belonging to the MLC, she visited the nongovernmental organization Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) for a medical examination. She said the exam showed that she had HIV/AIDS and another sexually transmitted infection.

Subsequently, she met with investigators of the court’s Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) who asked her for the medical certificate showing the results of the exam. She said she was unable to produce the certificate as she had lost it, and the doctor who examined her told her that he did not have the original certificate. 

However, Mr. Haynes today presented a medical certificate and a handwritten account of what happened to the witness, both of which he said were from her application to participate as a victim in Mr. Bemba’s trial.

“This certificate that is attached to the [handwritten] document you know nothing about [it]. So somebody appears to have written down your account and found or manufactured another copy of this certificate to attach to it. Would that be right?” asked Mr. Haynes.

“I know nothing about that. I don’t know how these documents ended up here,” replied the witness.

“If there is a victim’s application form in your name, you did not fill it in. Is that correct?” continued Mr. Haynes.

“I said to the prosecution officials whom I worked with that I had given my testimony orally. I didn’t use a pen to write anything. I gave my testimony orally, not with a pen, not with a pencil,” she answered.

The witness did not say in open court when she went for the medical test at MSF. However, she stated that she met the prosecution investigators during 2005. She gave much of her testimony in closed session.

‘Witness 23’ will continue his testimony on Monday.

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