Most of the evidence heard by the Bemba trial this week centered on the testimony of a Central African Republic (CAR) rape survivor, who testified that she tested positive for HIV after the attack.
‘Witness 29’ gave most of her evidence in closed session. The judges permitted two legal representatives of victims participating in the trial to question her, and they mainly focused on the identity of her rapists.
Besides giving testimony about how she and other people in her neighborhood were raped by Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers, ‘Witness 29’ recounted the looting these soldiers carried out. She also stated that Central African civilians took part in the looting, and that the country’s soldiers who confiscated looted property from the MLC did not hand it back to its owners.
‘Witness 119,’ the only other witness who testified this week, described the gang-rape of two young girls by a group of soldiers belonging to Mr. Bemba’s group. She started testifying today and will continue next week.
At the recommendation of the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), a psychologist was in court to monitor the witnesses who testified during the week. Additionally, an official from the VWU sat beside each of the witnesses as they testified to offer them any assistance they might have needed. Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said these measures were instituted after a psychological assessment of the witness showed that they were very vulnerable.
The prosecution has so far produced 14 of the 40 witnesses it has declared that it intends to call in the third trial conducted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). According to prosecutors, MLC soldiers infected Central African women with HIV when they allegedly carried out widespread rape, murder, and plunder in that country during 2002 and 2003. Mr. Bemba is on trial for failing to control his rampaging soldiers, who were in the country to help the then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a coup attempt.
When she first appeared on Monday, ‘Witness 29’ testified that about eight months after being raped by three members of Mr. Bemba’s militia, she went to a doctor to take an HIV test because she felt unwell.
“He said the results were positive. I said to him, ‘Okay doctor, that is all I wanted to know.’ I didn’t tell him that I had been raped by several people. I made him to understand that I got it from ordinary sex,” said the witness.
Prosecution lawyer Bärbel Carl asked the witness whether she had expected to test positive for HIV.
The witness replied, “When you are raped by three men that you had never met before, men that are not worthwhile, men who had used no protection, no condom, how could I identify the person who infected me? Might it have been the first, the second, or the third? I don’t know…It’s a sad incident and the test that I had, I was prepared so I took the results like a trooper.”
‘Witness 29’ also explained that she remained strong after testing positive because prior to the rape, she was involved in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS among young people at her local church.
The witness, who testified with protective measures, including voice and image distortion, said MLC soldiers raped her on March 5, 2003. They found her at home in Mongoumba near Bangui, the capital of the CAR.
‘Witness 29’ became the second witness in Mr. Bemba’s trial to state in open court that she tested HIV positive after being raped by MLC soldiers. On January 17, 2011, ‘Witness 68’ testified that she discovered she had HIV/AIDS following her rape by the Congolese soldiers. She added, however, that she did not know whether the two men who raped her in October 2002 were the ones who infected her with the virus.
After the rape, ‘Witness 29’ fled home to join her family members who had taken refugee in the bush.
During cross-examination, defense lawyer Nkwebe Liriss asked her why she never went to see a doctor after she returned to her home.
The witness replied, “After what I had suffered, I did not have the courage to tell the Mongoumba doctors about it because it was shameful and humiliating to tell anyone what had happened to me.”
Mr. Nkwebe then asked, “Would it be correct to say that you do not have any contemporaneous medical document that could attest to the reality of the sexual violence against you?”
“At the time of the events, I didn’t have the opportunity to see a doctor because I was ashamed of telling a doctor about that, and specifically that I had been a victim of violence or rape,” replied ‘Witness 29.’
She also stated that she did not tell her family about the results of her HIV test. “I did not want to reveal the secret. It is shameful, it is very shameful.”
Most of the witnesses who have testified so far in Mr. Bemba’s trial are rape survivors. A number of them have recounted how they and members of their families were subjected to multiple rapes by MLC soldiers.
Last December, judges ruled that while questioning such vulnerable witnesses, all parties should ensure that they guide the witnesses through their testimony by using short, simple, open-ended questions, with questions being asked in a nonconfrontational and nonpressuring manner. Judges also reminded parties that when a witness is questioned about sexual violence, they should formulate questions using appropriate language to avoid embarrassment and unnecessarily intrusive questions.
The judges also stated that in accordance with Rules 70 and 71 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, they would prevent any attempt by the parties to ask questions directed at: (1) Inferring consent of the victim for the sexual violence suffered by reason of any words or conduct, silence, or lack of resistance; (2) Questioning the credibility, character, or predisposition to sexual availability of the witness by reason of the sexual nature of the prior or subsequent conduct of the witness; and (3) Demonstrating the prior or subsequent sexual conduct of the witness.
On Tuesday, Assingambi Zarambaud, a legal representative of victims participating in the trial, asked ‘Witness 29’ whether the uniforms which the soldiers who attacked wore bore any insignia or symbol.
She answered, “If those people were real soldiers of the CAR, maybe they would have worn military uniforms with stripes, berets, and insignia. They only had military uniforms without military boots.”
In her testimony today, ‘Witness 29’ said the soldiers who raped her spoke the Congolese language Lingala. She said they wore military uniforms similar to those of her Central African army.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness 119’ testified that on the afternoon the MLC arrived in her neighborhood, she heard a woman screaming. “They were dragging her, she was screaming. I don’t know what intentions they had. Were they going to kill her? Sleep with her? I don’t know.” The woman was being carried by six Congolese soldiers – three held her by the head and three others by her feet.
While other MLC soldiers looked on, ‘Witness 119’ approached a soldier she assumed to be their leader because he was carrying a walkie-talkie. The witness did not give the details of her conversation with the alleged leader in open court. However, she stated that he ordered for the woman to be released.
In another incident on the same day, the witness said while seated near the river, she heard girls shouting and calling out. Upon investigation, the witness said she saw two girls being raped by MLC soldiers.
“What I saw was that they took two of the girls and they put the head of one against the head of the other,” said the witness. “And after that I saw a column of Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] who were standing one behind the other and two were on top of the girls sleeping with them.”
‘Witness 119’ said that there were many MLC soldiers in the canal with the two girls “waiting their turn.” The witness said the two girls were bleeding. She added that the girls were also struggling and screaming, “They have killed me. I am dead.” The witness gave further testimony about the event in closed session.
‘Witness 119’ will continue her testimony on Monday, March 21.