Two witnesses this week testified in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC), with accounts of pillaging allegedly committed by members of Bemba’s armed group dominating testimony.
According to the witnesses, Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops carried out systematic pillaging in a number of towns in the Central African Republic (CAR) and transported the loot to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the testimony, property looted belonged to individuals as well as the government.
In his testimony on Thursday, ‘witness 209’ said only troops belonging to the group led by the accused were present in the Central African town of Damara at the time it was pillaged. He described widespread pillaging, which he said the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) carried out between December 2002 and February 2003. “Different articles were pillaged. Clothing, bedding, they also took motorbikes and electric generator [sets]…They actually emptied my house.”
While being questioned by prosecution lawyer Massimo Scaliotti, the witness stated that the MLC looting took place in residential neighborhoods of Damara.
On Friday, ‘witness 209’ said MLC troops looted property belonging to the CAR government. “When they came into the center of Damara to occupy that place, they did not spare any building, any property that belonged to private individuals or the government,” stated the witness.
He explained that after MLC soldiers dislodged General François Bozizé’s rebel troops from Damara on December 7, 2002, “the properties and other assets of the government were looted systematically – mattresses, vehicles belonging to the government, motorcycles, nothing was spared.”
Some previous witnesses have recounted how Central African soldiers engaged in a shoot-out with the MLC, as the latter sought to transport war loot to the DRC. The trial has been told that the local army at some stage managed to confiscate looted property from Mr. Bemba’s soldiers, and that as a result the Congolese fighters staged brutal retaliatory attacks against Central African civilians.
Prosecutors at the ICC charge that Mr. Bemba, 48, failed to stop or punish his troops as they raped, murdered, and plundered. It was claimed in the prosecution’s opening statement last November that the crimes committed were “not incidental,” were “widespread,” and happened in all areas where MLC troops were deployed, including Damara.
Mr. Bemba has denied all five charges against him and argued that not only did he not have effective control over his troops during their presence in the CAR, but that any other armed groups active in the country during the 2002-2003 conflict could have committed the alleged crimes.
During that conflict, then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé faced a military coup led by current president Bozizé, prompting him to call upon the MLC and the Libya-backed Community of Saharan-Sahel States (CEN-SAD) troops to help him beat back the insurgency.
Mr. Scaliotti asked ‘witness 209’ if Libyan troops provided support to the MLC or if they were present in Damara. The witness said the MLC received logistical support from the Libyan troops as they fought to capture Damara. The witness also asserted that during the MLC’s occupation of Damara, there were no other armed groups in the area. “The first soldiers to occupy Damara were General Bozizé’s troops. Between 7th December 2002 to February 2003, there were no other troops [besides MLC],” he stated.
‘Witness 209’ was granted protective measures by ICC judges in order to conceal his identity and that of survivors of sexual violence whom he might mention during his testimony. He testified with image and voice distortion, and in-court use of a pseudonym. In addition, he gave part of his evidence in closed session.
Earlier in the week, ‘witness 63’ who had been testifying for nearly a fortnight, completed giving evidence. He told the trial that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers did not understand the geography of the CAR, during some of his very brief moments of testimony in open session.
“Was it your impression that the Banyamulenge [Mr. Bemba’s soldiers] did not understand the geography of your country?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
“It is true,” replied the witness. “The geography is different and the map that they had was also different.”
The witness, who had earlier testified that he followed MLC troops as they marched into Central African towns, asserted that it was much later in a provincial town that the Congolese soldiers got hold of a map.
Mr. Haynes then asked ‘witness 63’ how, without a map, MLC fighters managed to progress deep into the CAR. The witness said this was because Mr. Bemba’s soldiers used information received in the combat zone, including from child scouts.
However, the defense presented excerpts from the interview the witness gave to ICC prosecution investigators in which he only stated that the Congolese soldiers relied on information from the combat zone.
“Both things happened. These two situations are both true,” said ‘witness 63.’ The witness contended that thanks to the defense’s questioning, he was able to remember certain things that he had forgotten during the interview with investigators.
‘Witness 63’ also estimated that he followed the Congolese soldiers for “two months, if not more.”
On Monday, ‘witness 63’ stated that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers first went to the CAR in 2001. During cross-examination, Mr. Haynes asked ‘witness 63’ whether he had met or talked to any MLC soldiers during their first visit to the country in 2001.
The witness replied, “In 2001, we heard talk about them at the river port and that they had gone away.” The port he referred to lies along a river that separates the CAR and the DRC.
According to the witness, when Mr. Bemba’s soldiers returned to CAR in 2002, he stealthily followed them as they pursued rebels who were attempting to overthrow Mr. Patassé. The witness said last week that he subsequently lived among the MLC soldiers, but he did not say in open court under what circumstances he came to live with them.
Meanwhile, ‘witness 209’ told the trial that MLC troops in the CAR comprised of former soldiers under ex-Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as ill-trained and low ranking fighters who he said were the ones referred to as ‘Banyamulenge.’ Mr. Mobutu led Congo between 1965 and 1997.
Previous witnesses have used the term ‘Banyamulenge’ to refer to all MLC soldiers who were in the CAR at the time of the 2002-2003 conflict. However, ‘witness 209’ said the term referred to the lowly soldiers who “were wearing rubber boots and clothes that were much too large for them.”
He explained, “Former Mobutu soldiers dressed like soldiers but the Banyamulenge wore all kinds of dressing. Former soldiers of Mobutu had ranger boots but the [Banyamulenge] were wearing rubber boots, and that is something you don’t see in a regular army.”
‘Witness 209’ is scheduled to continue his testimony on Monday morning.