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Expert Explains Central African Languages to Bemba Trial

This week, a linguistics expert testified in the Bemba trial about the languages spoken in the Central African Republic (CAR) as well as in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The only other witness who appeared during the week testified in closed session.

On Monday, Professor William Samarin, 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 DRC.

Numerous prosecution witnesses have testified that soldiers who committed crimes in the 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, the expert 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 were 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.”

The defense observed that the report the professor presented to court last September 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 prosecution.

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 MLC aggressors.

Furthermore, he stated that even if the perpetrators spoke French or Sango, a language widely spoken in the 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, the expert 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.

However, Mr. Nkwebe 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.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the 16th prosecution witness in the trial completed giving testimony. However, all of it was provided in closed session. The witness testified over two days under the pseudonym ‘Witness 75.’

Five months into Mr. Bemba’s trial, the prosecution has called two expert witnesses, one overview witness, and 12 victims or witnesses to the alleged war crimes. Most of the witnesses in trials conducted so far at the ICC have testified with protective measures including voice and face distortion as well as the use of pseudonyms. These measures are intended to protect witnesses against possible reprisal attacks if their identities were known to the public.

In another development, trial judges on Thursday declined an application by a legal representative of victims participating in the trial. Delivering the oral ruling, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner stated that Assingambi Zarambaud had not provided sufficient justification as to why he wanted to question ‘Witness 6.’ According to the Judge, victims’ lawyers have to show that the testimony of a particular witness would be of a personal interest to victims they represent before they are allowed to question that witness.

Judge Steiner said that in Mr. Zarambaud’s filing to question ‘Witness 6,’ he had given one justification as to why the personal interest of the victims that he represented were affected. This justification was that the testimony of ‘Witness 6’ was crucial to the interests of the victims he represented. The judges found that such a justification was insufficient as it did not give any indication as to why the evidence of ‘Witness 6’ would affect the personal interests of victims represented by Mr. Zarambaud.

The judges allowed Mr. Zarambaud “on an exceptional basis” to submit a new application with detailed reasons as to how the personal interests of the victims he represents would be affected by the testimony of ‘Witness 6.’

The trial resumes on Monday, April 4, 2011, to hear the testimony of ‘Witness 6.’


  1. Too much manipulation in this trial of Bemba, it’s understandable to see what is going on in this 21 st century , so may bad things are happening in Afrika ,more than in where in the world.
    Afrika is a victim of it’s wealthin general and in particular the Kongo Kinshasa . Where the Nationalists Leaders are becoming victime of Ouest because of their éxtrem position.
    Now Bemba is among , Kadhaffi, Bagbo ….

  2. Bwana Makye,
    You might call these leaders nationalists but it is also indisputable that they have also contributed to abuses against their people. Should the world not take action against them simply because they are seen by some to be nationalists? That the West as represented by the ICC, NATO and other powers is taking action only against African leaders seems obvious. But is the West taking action against the likes of Tanzanian, Botswanian or other rpesidents who have diligently upheld their promises to the people? Should African leaders who abuse their people not be brought to book simply because tey are African?

    Am happy to hear your views on this.


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