A prosecution witness this week insisted that former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba’s soldiers brutalized civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003.
Whereas Mr. Bemba’s defense asserted that his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops were not in the country’s capital Bangui at the time the atrocities described by the witness were committed, ‘Witness 119’ insisted they were there.
Defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba contended that contrary to the assertion by ‘Witness 119’ that MLC troops entered the suburb of PK 12 on October 28, 2002, they actually did not reach that area until October 30. He also called into question the explanation the witness gave as to why she believed the soldiers who brutalized civilians were members of Mr. Bemba’s group.
The defense attorney asked the witness to explain why she initially told prosecution investigators that MLC troops reached her neighborhood on October 22, 2002, then days later she stated that they had arrived on October 28, 2002.
“When the investigators asked me questions in Bangui, it was my duty to tell the truth. If I wasn’t sure of an answer, I had to carry out some checks,” replied the witness.
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba suggested to the witness that the troops she saw were Central African soldiers, not members of the MLC.
“If they were CAR troops, I would have said so,” responded the witness. “I can recognize CAR soldiers, and they could not have committed such abuse and violent acts.”
The witness described how she determined that the soldiers who committed brutalities in her neighborhood were from Mr. Bemba’s group. She said when these soldiers arrived in her neighborhood, they hid by the roadside, “gathered together in groups” and asked for food from area residents.
She also stated that the soldiers spoke Lingala, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo but not in CAR.
‘Witness 119’ also said that there were women who kept guard over goods that MLC soldiers had looted from civilians. She indicated that these women were Congolese nationals.
Asked by prosecuting lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye about the role of these women, the witness replied that they kept watch over goods that had been looted in the neighborhood of the Boy-Rabé market, a few kilometers from Bangui.
‘Witness 119’ also testified at the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that one of the leaders of the MLC soldiers told her that then Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé had given money to Mr. Bemba. The witness did not say in open court why Mr. Patassé purportedly gave this money.
Bemba, 48, has been in detention at the ICC since July 2008. Although he was not in the CAR with the troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged, he is on trial because prosecutors charge that he should bear responsibility for not having restrained or punished his soldiers.
According to the Rome Statute, which founded the ICC, a military commander is criminally responsible for crimes committed by forces under their effective command and control. Mr. Bemba has denied all charges against him. His lawyers have stated that any of the myriad militia groups active in Bangui at the time could have committed these crimes.
Assingambi Zarambaud, a legal representative of victims participating in the trial, asked the witness whether there were no rebels belonging to General Francois Bozizé’s group in her neighborhood at the time the MLC reached the area.
“Those [Bozizé rebels] who had been hiding in my district run away,” replied the witness. According to her, the Central African soldiers who were around her neighborhood at the time MLC soldiers arrived in the area were confined to their headquarters.
‘Witness 119’ testified that she witnessed the gang-rape of two girls by MLC soldiers. She also testified about widespread looting that she said were carried out by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers.
But Mr. Bemba’s defense sought to punch holes in the testimony of ‘Witness 119,’ and questioned her at length about the conduct of various militia groups who operated in Bangui during 2002 and 2003.
When asked if she knew an individual known as Miskine, the witness replied that she knew this person to have been “in the inner circle” of Mr. Patassé.
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba continued, “Do you know whether Miskine’s troops were involved in the violent acts and abuses that took place at Bangui during the events in question?”
The witness replied, “The sole thing that I know is that the morning of the day when the Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] left Boy-Rabé neighborhood, Miskine’s men had shot at the local inhabitants.”
Numerous prosecution witnesses have testified that Colonel Abdoulaye Miskine, who commanded a special unit outside of the army that fought insurgents attempting to overthrow Mr. Patassé, led a massacre at the Bangui cattle market.
Asked whether she knew about the defense and vigilante units that operated in various Bangui neighborhoods, ‘Witness 119’ explained that these groups were set up at the behest of Mr. Patassé.
“Do you know whether these groups were organized as private militia of Patassé at the time?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
The witness answered, “At the particular time when these groups were being put together, authorities in each neighborhood had to supervise [them]. They were responsible for monitoring and security.”
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness whether it was not true that members of these militia groups were unemployed youths that supported Mr. Patassé.
The witness replied that with regard to one of three groups mentioned by Mr. Kilolo-Musamba, this was indeed the case. “Most of them were unemployed youths trained, and since they had no jobs, many of them followed or rallied around President Patassé,” said ‘Witness 119.’
“Do you know whether these militia were involved in the commission of crimes and abuses during the time of events?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
“We had no such information after they rallied around President Patassé, and they fled together,” the witness replied. She added that she did not know what role the various militia loyal to Mr. Patassé played during the upheaval in Bangui.
Meanwhile, on Thursday William Samarin, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada, started testifying as an expert witness in the trial. With more than 50 years of experience in the field of linguistics, Mr. Samarin has written a report for the court, which compares Sango, a language spoken in the CAR and Lingala, which is spoken in the DRC. The report, drawing from material provided by the court’s prosecutors and other literature, highlights similarities and differences between the two languages.
The trial continues on Monday.