This week, an expert witness called by the prosecution explained how soldiers belonging to Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba’s rebel group used rape as a weapon of war in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. He stated that some of the women who were assaulted got infected with HIV.
Dr. André Tabo, a Central African psychiatrist who treated and assessed numerous women raped during that conflict, said Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers raped CAR women as “punishment” for supporting rebels who attempted to overthrow then president Ange-Félix Patassé. The women were able to identify the nationality of their attackers because the soldiers spoke a language the women could identify as Congolese.
The expert teaches psychiatry and medical psychology at the University of Bangui’s faculty of health sciences and wrote a report for the court documenting the plight of 512 rape survivors.
Following the end of the conflict in March 2003, Dr. Tabo served on a multi-disciplinary team comprising of doctors, psychologists, lawyers, and social workers that drew up a list of sexual violence survivors in Bagui, the capital of the CAR. Besides identifying medical problems arising from the sexual violence, the team was tasked with providing medical care and psychological support to the survivors under a project funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Subsequent to this, Dr. Tabo worked as an unpaid consultant with L’Organisation pour la Compassion etle Développementdes Familles en Détresse (OCODEFAD), providing social support for its members who had suffered sexual violence.
Prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga asked the expert what the motivations of the perpetrators of this sexual violence were.
First, responded the expert, “there is the fact that the victims were considered to be war booty,” he said, explaining that these were defenseless women and girls left behind by their men who had fled due to the conflict. The majority of the survivors he worked with were aged 30 years and below, and at that age women were not only vulnerable, but also “attractive.”
Secondly, the women who were attacked needed to be “punished” because they were thought to be in support of enemy troops. Amongst the 512 survivors sampled in the doctor’s report, 42 percent of them were raped in front of their family members. Dr. Tabo stated that perpetrating sexual violence in the presence of others is connected to the “punishment” motivation, particularly if that family member is a husband. “Raping a woman before and in front of a member of her family meant punishing her and humiliating that member of the family,” he stated.
Furthermore, as people close to the enemy troops, those attacked were assaulted in order to “destabilize the enemy troops.” According to the expert, the neighborhoods in Bangui, whose residents underwent the most rapes, were in the northern part, which was considered a stronghold of rebels led by Francois Bozizé.
The rebels were at the time trying to depose Mr. Patassé, who called in Mr. Bemba’s troops to help him beat back the rebellion. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that members of Mr. Bemba’s militia used rape of both men and women as a weapon of war while they fought alongside Mr. Patassé’s loyalist forces. Prosecutors have also claimed that during these attacks, Congolese soldiers infected Central African women with HIV.
Dr. Tabo’s report also mentioned the impact of the sexual violence. Amongst the survivors, 81 persons were found to be HIV-positive. However, it was found that most of them had the virus prior to the rape. He stated that ten of the survivors were infected during the rape.
Central to the defense’s questioning was the nationality of the attackers and the HIV infection rates among the survivors he studied. According to the witness, the survivors stated that the attackers were MLC fighters.
“How was it then that the victims came to understand their attackers, that they were being raped to punish them for collaborating with the enemy?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
Dr. Tabo responded that because the CAR neighbored the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), “certain languages from the DRC are understood by the people of the CAR and vice versa.”
He added that several rape survivors told him that after soldiers entered their houses, they demanded to know where the rebels were hiding and said they would punish the women if they did not disclose the whereabouts of the insurgents. He said the soldiers then raped the women as punishment for supporting the rebels.
The expert stated that the majority of the survivors said such words were uttered to them before they were raped. According to him, rape was used during the armed conflict in the CAR as a weapon of war. He added that soldiers who were under pressure of fighting, and who were out of control, often used sex to unwind. Dr. Tabo also said that the soldiers preferred “young and attractive women,” which explained why women below 30 years were up to four times more likely to be raped than those over 30.
Asked by the defense counsel how he determined that ten of the 512 survivors he sampled became infected with HIV during the rape, the witness said this information was gathered by a separate team formed by the CAR government and funded by the UN.
Mr. Haynes sought to cast doubt on the credibility of the team that gathered this data, emphasizing that it was not the UN but the social affairs ministry of the CAR that carried gathered the data. Besides, he questioned the conclusions reached by Dr. Tabo. How, for instance, could he say only four women got pregnant following rapes of more than 500 women, yet many of them were raped several times and sometimes by two or more men?
The expert witness replied that there were probably cases of unwanted pregnancies that were not stated. “The actual figure here is below. Many victims were not able to come forward,” explained Dr. Tabo.
In an apparent attempt to dismiss prosecution allegations that Congolese soldiers infected Central African women with HIV, Mr. Haynes tendered as evidence a CAR government report, which stated that the HIV prevalence rate in that country was around 15 percent in 2002. He also tendered a report by the UN Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) that he claimed pegged the prevalence rate in the DRC at the time at no more than 1.5 percent.
Asked by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a legal representative of victims participating in the trial, to explain how he established that numerous married women were raped during the conflict, Dr. Tabo explained that survivors filled in questionnaires in which they stated their marital status at the time of the attacks.
Meanwhile, earlier in the week, Firmin Feindiro, the Central African Prosecutor-General, completed giving evidence. In his week-long testimony, Mr. Feindiro told the court about an inquiry he led into crimes committed during the 2002–2003 conflict. The probe included abuses allegedly committed by Mr. Bemba’s armed group, and concluded that Mr. Patassé commanded all Central African government troops and their allies in the country, including the MLC.
Dr. Tabo completed his testimony on Thursday. Hearings will resume on May 3, 2011 as court goes on judicial recess next week.