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Bemba’s Soldiers Could Have Been Multilingual

In his third day of testimony, a linguistics expert told the trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba that Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters may have spoken other languages besides Lingala.

Lingala belongs to the Bantu group of languages and is native to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Numerous prosecution witnesses have testified that soldiers who committed crimes in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003 spoke Lingala. The witnesses concluded that these soldiers were members of Mr. Bemba’s group, primarily on the basis of the language spoken by the troops.

In his testimony today, Professor William Samarin stated that DRC is the only one among countries that neighbor the CAR where there are Bantu-speaking populations. He added that while there were a few Central African ethnic groups that spoke Bantu-type languages, these could not be confused with Congolese nationals because they also spoke Sango, a language widely spoken by Central Africans.

In calling the linguistics expert, prosecutors are attempting to give credence to the testimony of their witnesses, who concluded that rampaging soldiers were Congolese rather than Central African nationals based on the language they spoke. The defense has argued that Central African soldiers and militiamen were involved in committing atrocities against civilians at the time MLC fighters were in that country.

According to International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors, Mr. Bemba as commander-in-chief of the MLC bears responsibility for the mass rape, plunder and murder allegedly committed by his soldiers in the CAR. His troops were in the country between October 2002 and March 2003 to help the country’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a rebellion.

Under cross-examination by defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss, the professor affirmed that besides Lingala, the alleged MLC soldiers may have spoken Swahili and other languages. He said even if Central Africans knew Swahili or other languages spoken by the Congolese troops, they would have identified them to be non-Central Africans because they would have sounded “different.”

Mr. Nkwebe asked the witness why Lingala was identified as the language of the aggressors if indeed the Congolese soldiers could have spoken other languages.

“Some people would have recognized bits and pieces of the language [Lingala],” explained Professor Samarin. “The important thing is not that they spoke Lingala, but that they spoke like people from over there [DRC]. Of course they may also have had other uniqueness.”

Last Friday, the expert said the language spoken by the MLC soldiers, as well as their accent, would have distinguished them from Central African citizens.

The defense observed today that the report the professor presented to court last September last was based on research carried out over 15 years ago in 1994. The witness replied that “nothing has changed since 1994” as far as linguistic dynamics he testified about were concerned.

Professor Samarin explained that in addition to his personal knowledge and his 1994 studies, his report to the court was also based on the events of 2002 and 2003 that he found and analyzed in the material and witness testimonies provided to him by the Office of The Prosecutor.

Professor Samarin continues giving his testimony tomorrow morning.