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Bemba Defense Contests Expert’s Report

Today, defense lawyers of war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba called into question the conclusions reached by a linguistics expert in a report the expert presented to the court at the behest of the prosecution.

William Samarin, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, has throughout his testimony asserted that Central Africans would have been able to identify Lingala – a Congolese language – as the language spoken by their alleged Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) aggressors.

Furthermore, he stated that even if the perpetrators spoke French or Sango, a language widely spoken in the Central African Republic (CAR), nationals of the CAR would still have been able to recognize them as foreigners based on their accents, voice, texture, and general “feel of the language.”

In his report to the court, which was based on material provided by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) – including the testimonies of some prosecution witnesses – the professor concluded that given the various social, demographic, economic, and cultural aspects of Bangui, the Central African capital, it was reasonable to say that there were some Lingala speakers in Bangui. He estimated that one  in 12 Central Africans spoke Lingala, a language native to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but also spoken in Congo-Brazzaville.

The expert witness has asserted that the language spoken by the MLC soldiers, as well as their accent, would have distinguished them from Central African citizens. This has tended to give credence to the testimonies of various prosecution witnesses, who said they concluded that soldiers who committed atrocities in Bangui were MLC members because they spoke Lingala.

However, defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss observed that in the professor’s data where he represented levels of knowledge and familiarity with Lingala, he had classified two prosecution witnesses of Congolese origin with the lowest level of familiarity – the same as witnesses of Central African origin who testified that they were unable to identify Lingala.

“If someone comes from Kinshasa [the DRC capital] that I gave Level 1, then I got mixed up. I should not pretend that this is an immaculate report,” responded Professor Samarin.

Mr. Nkwebe then pointed out that another witness of Congolese origin was classified as Level 5, representing the highest knowledge and understanding of Lingala. However, the defense attorney said this particular witness only had partial knowledge of Lingala and yet had perfect knowledge of Swahili language. He said this witness, in fact, gave his statement in Swahili and not Lingala.

In defending this part of his report, the witness agreed that his table of analysis was only “valid until proven invalid.”

In another section of the report, the defense pointed out that for the assessment criteria for determining the percentage of Central African citizens able to recognize and identify Lingala, the professor only used their geographical proximity to the DRC. The expert conceded that there was indeed a disjuncture as to whether his conclusion on the number of Central Africans able to identify Lingala applied to the whole country or just Bangui.

“I should have been more precise with respect to inland and riverland, but I wasn’t,” stated Mr. Samarin.

A narrow strip of the Oubangui river separates Oubangui from DRC territory, meaning citizens from one country can travel to the other.

Mr. Bemba, 48, is on trial for failing to stop or punish his troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged in the CAR during the 2002–2003 conflict. He has denied the charges, claiming that numerous other troops, both national and foreign, present in the CAR at the time could have committed the crimes.

Tomorrow, the prosecution will call a new witness.