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Bemba’s Commanders Looked On As Soldiers Abused Civilians

The trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba today heard how commanders of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia looked on as soldiers committed abuses against civilians. 

Continuing his testimony from Monday, ‘Witness 73’ recounted how MLC soldiers raped his neighbor’s underage daughter and beat this neighbor’s son into unconsciousness when he attempted to stop the militiamen from looting goods from his family’s kiosk. The witness also told of how he felt powerless when he discovered that one of Mr. Bemba’s soldiers had defiled his ten year old daughter. 

He stated that an individual who was identified as the commander of the soldiers in the neighborhood where the witness lived did not reprimand his troops, who looted from civilians and committed numerous abuses. “There was nobody to stop them,” the witness said. “They did exactly as they wished. Even their leader was there when they committed those abuses.” 

“Do you know whether the perpetrators were punished?” asked prosecuting lawyer Hesham Mourad. 

“No,” replied the witness. He added, “It was their commander who commanded the attacks and took part in the attacks. They were not afraid doing anything, committing these atrocities, because after committing these atrocities, they were very happy.” The witness said this commander was known as “Saddam.” 

Mr. Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) started last November and is being heard by judges Sylvia Steiner, Kuniko Ozaki, and Joyce Aluoch. The five charges faced by the Congolese opposition leader stem from his alleged failure to rein in his troops who prosecutors claim carried out mass rape, killings, and plunder during 2002 and 2003.

The MLC troops, who also at the time were attempting to overthrow Congolese president Joseph Kabila, were in the Central African Republican (CAR) at the behest of the country’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé, who needed assistance to fight off a coup attempt.

In his opening statement at the trial, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated that the prosecution was not alleging that Mr. Bemba ordered his troops to commit these crimes. “The prosecution submits that Jean-Pierre Bemba is responsible for these crimes as a result of his failure to control the troops he commanded,” the Prosecutor said. Mr. Bemba has denied the charges, claiming that his troops were under Mr. Patassé’s command once they entered the CAR and that he took firm action when he learned of the abuses his soldiers were committing.

‘Witness 73’ recalled how the son of his neighbor told looting MLC troops to go and ask for food from Mr. Patassé, who had invited them to the country, instead of stealing from civilians.

“All of a sudden one of them armed his rifle and wanted to shoot the child. The commander intervened to calm his troops and withdrew his weapon,” recalled the witness. “Then another shot and the shooting alerted others who came towards the compound.”

According to the witness, about six soldiers set upon the boy and beat him, while another group went on to flog the boy’s father, and another raped his underage sister.

“The boy, they beat him up, kicked him…and he lost consciousness. Instead of leaving him, they decided to take him to the base,” recalled the witness, who stated that he witnessed these abuses. “He was falling, they kept beating him. Close to the base, the colonel was there, and he seized him by his legs, he dragged him, his head was bouncing on the ground. And they opened the jail and they pulled him [inside]. He was lying in his own blood.” The witness said the boy was released following his mother’s pleas.

‘Witness 73’ will tomorrow morning be cross-examined by legal representatives of victims participating in the trial and Mr. Bemba’s lawyers.