The sole witness who testified this week recalled how war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops started shooting civilians after losing a battle to Central African soldiers. Going by the court-given pseudonym ‘Witness 42,’ he told the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that soldiers belonging to the accused’s militia lost an important battle at the PK 22 suburb on November 7, 2002, and then turned their anger on civilians.
“Some few soldiers returned to their base at PK 12 and it was upon their return that they became furious given that they had lost many men and equipment at the front,” recalled the witness. “They were very angry, and they considered everyone as a rebel – young men and…old people.”
The witness continued, “They were shooting people and beating up everybody. After that fighting, they became really violent and caused everyone to flee into the bush.”
The witness also testified that he was flogged because of allegations that his son was a rebel supporter, and that his ten year old daughter was raped by Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers. However, he stated that ICC prosecution investigators did not take statements from any of his family members.
“They did not ask me [to interview them], and I could not go and bring the children on my own volition,” the witness said.
“Why didn’t you put the investigators in contact with your wife, your son, or your daughter?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
“I could not compel them to ask them to go and call my children. It was up to them to ask me to go and call for my daughter to tell her story,” replied the witness. ‘Witness 42’ added that if the investigators had asked him to produce his son, who was also tortured by MLC fighters, he would have been happy to get the young man to talk to the OTP agents.
Prosecutors at the ICC allege that Mr. Bemba knew that his troops were committing mass rape, killings, and looting in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003 but did not take action to stop or to punish them. He has denied all the five charges he faces.
Most of the cross-examination of ‘Witness 42’ was conducted in closed session. In the few brief moments when he testified in open court, the witness was questioned about the statement he made to prosecution investigators. Mr. Haynes also questioned him about the manner in which he was interviewed by the investigators. The witness testified with face and voice distortion to keep his identity secret.
‘Witness 42’ also recalled how Mr. Bemba’s soldiers forced his son to cook for them after they had looted his shop. Under cross-examination, the witness recounted that when his son tried to resist the repeated looting of his shop, MLC soldiers beat him up. “When a soldier came to take goods for the third time, my son pushed him back and said he couldn’t allow him to take the goods without paying,” said the witness. “There were three of them who came to take these articles.”
The witness stated that while his son asked the soldiers to pay for the goods, one of the soldiers told him, “I am a soldier and you are a civilian, give them to me.”
“My son reacted and pushed the Banyamulenge [Congolese soldier]. Seeing as he had already knocked down their companion, the other two and the one who was on the ground got up and started to beat my son up,” said the witness. “They started kicking him. One person against three is not a balanced fight. He couldn’t stand them.”
He said the Congolese soldiers then dragged his son away, accusing him of being one of the rebels who were trying to topple the government of then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé. ‘Witness 42’ said the soldiers took his son to the MLC’s front line where they forced him to prepare meals for them. He did not state in open court how long his son was forced to cook for the MLC fighters.
The witness also said he saw rebel troops belonging to the group headed by Francois Bozizé arrive in the PK 12 suburb located 12 kilometers from Bangui. He said Mr. Bozizé’s troops never committed atrocities against civilians. Mr. Bozizé is the current president of the CAR, having overthrown Mr. Patassé in 2003.
Earlier this week, ‘Witness 42’ said that his son was attacked last week by unknown assailants. However, he did not say in open court where the attack took place and what the possible motive of the attack was. “My child that I talked about here was attacked. The attackers used an axe, and the child has injuries to the head. There are four wounds,” he said.
Asked by Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner whether he had informed the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), the witness answered, “But I am here. How can it be possible for me to share this information?” He then added, “It is when I was in the waiting room that I got the telephone, and I called my wife. On that day they [VWU staff] were there and they heard the information.”
“Even today before I came into the courtroom, I called my wife who gave me some information. She also told me that she had had a medical certificate issued that she will attach to the complaint to be lodged in our courts,” the witness on Monday.
At this stage, Judge Steiner took the hearing into closed session. When the hearing resumed in open court, the Judge asked ‘Witness 42’ whether he was ready to continue giving testimony. The witness said he was ready to continue. Judge Steiner said the trial would continue but advised the witness that if he wished to talk to someone in the VWU, he should inform judges and the hearing would be suspended.
‘Witness 42’ later stated that he had spoken to his wife and his son, and this had put his mind at ease. He went on to give evidence from Monday to Friday – most of it in closed session.
The trial continues on Monday with the eleventh prosecution witness taking the stand.