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Bemba Trial Stalls as Witness is Taken Ill

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) today stalled, as the witness who was testifying was taken ill. The witness, who started testifying last Thursday, complained of discomfort at the start of the afternoon session, prompting Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner to adjourn the hearing to tomorrow.

Last Friday, ‘Witness 209’ told court that he had had two teeth extracted. As a result, his testimony which had been scheduled to continue that afternoon was cancelled so he could go for a medical examination.

In his appearance this morning, ‘Witness 209’, who was under questioning by prosecution lawyer Massimo Scaliotti, gave all of his evidence in closed session. Since his first appearance, the witness has told the court about the pillaging he said Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers carried out in the Central African town of Damara. He said once the MLC took control of Damara from Francois Bozizé’s rebel forces, they systematically looted “any property that belonged to private individuals or the government”. 

‘Witness 209’ is testifying with face and voice distortion, as well as the use of a pseudonym to keep his identity secret from the public. He has given most of his evidence in closed session.

At the resumption of the hearing after the lunch break today, Judge Steiner asked the witness if he felt well enough to continue testifying. 

“The stitches on my teeth are hurting. I spoke at length this morning and I am beginning to feel some pain. I do not feel very well,” replied the witness, prompting judges to adjourn the hearing to tomorrow.

Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been on trial at the ICC since last November, although he has been in detention at The Hague-based court since July 2008. He is charged with failure to stop or punish his MLC soldiers as they allegedly carried out mass rapes, murders and plunder in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and March 2003. At the time, the MLC were in the neighboring country to assist its then president Ange-Félix Patassé stave off a coup attempt.

‘Witness 209’ is the 21st prosecution witness to be heard in the trial. Previous witnesses have included rape survivors, victims of plunder, and witnesses to murders and other crimes allegedly committed by the Congolese troops. In addition, three expert witnesses have appeared to testify about sexual violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Central African and Congolese languages; and the use of rape as a weapon of war. 

‘Witness 209’ is scheduled to resume testifying tomorrow morning.