The trial of war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba this week heard from the top prosecutor of the Central African Republic (CAR). The witness led a judicial investigation that found Mr. Bemba and former president Ange-Félix Patassé responsible for the crimes committed in the country during 2002 and 2003.
Firmin Feindiro, the Prosecutor-General of the CAR, told the court that he received a letter from his country’s Ministry of Justice tasking him with opening an investigation into the 2002–2003 conflict. The letter was accompanied by a report compiled by United Nations agencies on the number of victims of crimes during that period.
Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Ibrahim Yillah, Mr. Feindiro said he subsequently led an inquiry aimed at determining the responsibility of individuals behind the crimes.
“People had been killed. People had been raped. Possessions had been stolen, looted. People had been injured as well,” stated Mr. Feindiro. Besides, he said, there were crimes committed that were “financial in nature.” The inquiry found that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops perpetrated most of these crimes, said the witness.
However, according to him, Mr. Bemba was not charged in the CAR over these crimes because he had acquired immunity from prosecution at the time Central African authorities concluded that his troops had committed the crimes.
Mr. Feindiro explained that no material or physical responsibility charges for the conduct of the MLC troops were brought before the examining judge to whom he presented his findings; only “intellectual responsibility” was considered. He said that it was for the intellectual responsibility of the alleged crimes that Mr. Bemba and other co-perpetrators were found by Central African prosecutors to be criminally responsible.
However, once the case was presented to the examining judge, the judge did not maintain the charges against Mr. Bemba. “He [Bemba] had become Vice President of the Congo and therefore had immunity. Central African criminal proceedings at the time had not accepted the principle of universal jurisdiction,” said the witness.
At the time Mr. Bemba sent his troops to the CAR to help then president Ange-Félix Patassé beat back a coup attempt, the MLC was a rebel group attempting to take power in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, following the signing of a peace agreement, Mr. Bemba’s group laid down their arms and Mr. Bemba became one of the vice presidents of Congo.
Mr. Feindiro testified that other individuals, including Mr. Patassé and his former Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé, were also not brought to trial. He said he filed an appeal against the decisions of the judge, but he did not state in court what the outcome of this appeal was.
Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for crimes similar to those that the Central African prosecutor had sought to charge, not for criminal responsibility but command responsibility. As the commander in chief of the MLC, he is charged with failure to prevent, stop, or punish his troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and plundered civilians of the CAR.
The Hague-based court opened its investigations into the CAR conflict in May 2007 following a referral from the Central African government in December 2004. The trial commenced last November.
Mr. Feindiro has also told the trial that the national judicial investigations conducted by his country heard from more than 300 victims, three quarters of them rape victims. Cases of murder and looting were also heard, but they were fewer than the rape cases. According to him, the rape victims identified their attackers as members of the MLC.
The Bangui prosecutor said the judicial probe conducted under his direction concluded that Mr. Patassé had overall command of armed forces in the country at the time of the conflict. In effect, the probe gave Mr. Bemba subordinate responsibility over the soldiers that brutalized civilians.
He added that his investigation, which commenced in August 2003 and lasted “several months,” heard from about 300 witnesses to the atrocities mainly committed in the country’s capital Bangui. Among the witnesses were Central African military authorities, who explained how orders were given during the campaign Mr. Patassé’s forces and allied groups including the MLC undertook against an armed rebellion that sought to overthrow Mr. Patassé.
Based on interviews with victims and witnesses, Mr. Feindiro reached conclusions about individuals he deemed culpable for the crimes. The dossier containing his conclusions, which is now part of the evidence at the ICC trial, was the focus of this week’s defense questioning.
In the dossier, the Prosecutor-General stated that Mr. Patassé, as then Central African president, leader of the national armed forces, and chair of the High Council of the National Defense, was the hierarchical leader of the armed forces and the foreign mercenaries who fought on their side. The Prosecutor classified the MLC as one of these allied foreign mercenary forces.
Mr. Feindiro’s dossier also noted that in a speech delivered to Central Africans on November 29, 2002, Mr. Patassé stated that he had indeed called upon Mr. Bemba’s MLC troops to give his loyalist forces a hand in fighting off a coup attempt. According to excerpts read out in court by the defense and acknowledged by the witness, Mr. Patassé stated in that speech that he knew that crimes had been committed and that as a consequence, he was going to establish a commission to “assess all that.”
As such, according to the dossier, the Feindiro-led judicial investigation concluded that “while the fact that he [Bemba] sent his troops in at the request of Patassé– this fact is not being challenged [but] he has not been shown to be involved in their use on the field and it is therefore fitting to exclude him.”
Mr. Feindiro’s probe concluded that once the MLC were in Bangui, they were under the orders of Mr. Patassé through the direct command of Ferdinand Bombayake. The United Presidential Security (USP) led by General Bombayake was the only one of the Central African armed forces found by the country’s judicial probe to have worked with the MLC. This was because Mr. Patassé entirely trusted Bombayake but had no trust in the Forces Armées Centrafricain (FACA), the country’s regular army, which he suspected of being part of the coup attempt against him.
The CAR Prosecutor-General’s report stated that Mr. Patassé coordinated the military operations against the insurgents. “When an offensive or counter-offensive was organized, it was the president that organized it…This has been borne out by General Bombayake who maintained that it was Patassé who decided on everything and that he [Bombayake] would only implement the instructions receive,” it said.
During cross-examination, defense attorney Kilolo-Musamba also read out excerpts from Mr. Feindiro’s statement to ICC prosecution investigators in which he claimed the MLC received payment from the Central African treasury. He is reported as saying that the payment was authorized by Mr. Patassé and his Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé.
Mr. Feindiro also said that during the national investigations, hearings, and questioning of victims, it emerged that there were numerous armed groups in the CAR at the time of the uprising. These groups included forces led by Colonel Abdoulaye Miskine, who reported to Mr. Patassé, as well as SCPS (la Société centrafricaine de protection et de surveillance), a private security group that the witness said was led by Mr. Patassé’s chauffeur.
Besides, there was the USP, Libyan forces, and troops from the 21-nation regional grouping, the Community of Saharan-Sahel State, or CEN-SAD. According to the witness, “ethnic militia groups” as well rebels led by François Bozizé, were also active in the CAR at the time Mr. Bemba’s troops were in that country.
However, Mr. Feindiro asserted that the victims who were heard by the judicial probe reported that troops from the various Central African armed groups did not commit any rapes. The probe heard that the group led by Mr. Miskine carried out executions at a cattle market in PK 13 (Point Kilomètre 13) suburb near the capital Bangui.