A witness this week stated that Central African Republic (CAR) generals told him that when war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops were in the country, they were commanded by former president Ange-Félix Patassé.
Pamphile Oradimo, the Senior Investigating Judge of the CAR, interviewed several senior military officers as part of his investigations into the individuals responsible for crimes committed in the country during the 2002-2003 conflict. Among others, he sought to establish who commanded the country’s troops and their Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) allies at the time Mr. Patassé was battling an armed rebellion.
Under cross-examination by defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba, Mr. Oradimo, who was testifying for the second week, confirmed the statements made to him by senior military officials. In the statements, sections of which Mr. Kilolo-Musamba read out, Mr. Oradimo asked General Ferdinand Bombayake, who headed the Patassé presidential guard, under which military authorities different armed forces involved in the conflict operated.
“The Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] were operating under the command of the Assistant Chief of Staff, General [Andre] Mazi, and Lt. Col. Lengbe. Only these two gentlemen could provide you with details of the practical measures that had been implemented,” read General Bombayake’s statement.
General Bombayake also stated that forces led by Koumatamadji Martin, alias Abdoulaye Miskine, a Chadian national, “reported directly to the head of state.” These trooped numbered around 700. Libyan troops fighting along the side of Mr. Patassé’s loyalist forces also reported to the head of state, he said. A number of prosecution witnesses have said that Mr. Miskine’s troops committed crimes, including murders, in Bangui, although they have said most of the crimes were committed by Mr. Bemba’s forces.
According to the statement of another military official, the Banyamulenge later came under the direct command of Mr. Bombayake. For his part, General Mazi stated that Lt. Col. Lengbe defected to the rebel forces of François Bozizé, and “from that moment onwards, all the [Banyamulenge] operations in Bangui and provinces were organized and led by General Bombayake.”
The statement by Mr. Bombayake’s assistant was also read aloud in court. The assistant stated that the coordination of operations between the Banyamulenge and members of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard was the responsibility of Mr. Bombayake and a “representative of Mr. Bemba.” Mr. Bombayake’s assistant added that this was under the supervision of the Minister of Defense.
Mr. Bemba, as commander in chief of the MLC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for failing to stop or punish his soldiers as they allegedly went on rampage in the CAR, raping, looting, and murdering civilians. The MLC were in the country to help Mr. Patassé fight off a coup attempt.
Under the Rome Statute that formed the ICC, commanders can be charged for failing to punish or to stop their troops who commit crimes. Mr. Bemba has pleaded not guilty, primarily on the grounds that he did not have command over his troops whom prosecutors allege committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in and around Bangui.
Meanwhile, Mr. Oradimo also testified that his investigation found that local armed groups had committed crimes in his country before the arrival of the MLC. His investigation found that crimes committed in the country as a result of a coup attempt against Mr. Patassé dated back to November 2001. This was one year before the crimes over which Mr. Bemba is being tried were committed. “During the investigation, we did not distinguish between the victims [of crimes], whether they were before or after the 25th [October 2002]. We heard all of them,” he said.
Mr. Oradimo told the trial, presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner at The Hague-based court, that when the country’s current president François Bozizé started a rebellion against Mr. Patassé, battles between rebels and loyalist forces started well ahead of the arrival of MLC troops.
He said the Bozizé rebels started their campaign from Chad, then went through numerous towns in and around Bangui, including Bossongoa, Mongoumba, and Damara.
Mr. Oradimo’s investigation found that the various armed groups loyal to Mr. Patassé, such as the United Presidential Security (USP) led by Colonel Miskine and the Société centrafricainede protection et desurveillance (SCPS) – a private security group led by a Patassé associate – both of whose men were better equipped than the country’s regular army (Forces Armées Centrafricain or FACA), were at the time spread over three quarters of the CAR territory.
“They [loyalist forces] had perpetrated the most abominable abuses against the civilian population and its property,” said the Bangui judge.
“At no point regarding the committing of these acts of violence do you mention the MLC. Are we to understand that the most horrific acts of violence and abuse committed against the civilian population and their belongings starting on the 2nd of November 2001 were committed by the men of Miskine, Paul Barrel [head of the SPCS]…excluding the MLC men?” asked Mr.Kilolo-Musamba.
“Yes, that was well before,” replied Mr. Oradimo.
The witness was then asked how long for Mr. Patassé loyalist groups, in addition to the FACA, operated.
He replied, “They operated until the fall [of Mr. Patassé] on the 15th of March 2003.”
The Central African towns where the ICC prosecutor claims some of Mr. Bemba’s alleged crimes were committed include Bangui, Boy-Rabé, Bossongoa, and Mongumba.
The defense has argued that no MLC troops arrived in many of these towns at the dates many witnesses have said they were brutalized by alleged MLC fighters. Accordingly, the defense has claimed that any of the numerous armed groups active at the time in those areas could have been the perpetrators of crimes which prosecutors claim were committed by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers.
On Thursday, a witness who had first appeared the previous day stated that there were child soldiers among the ranks of the MLC. According to him, the minors mainly carried out reconnaissance missions in towns the MLC planned to attack.
“Apparently they were used as scouts. So they would go to the locality and pass themselves off as children in trouble because of the war…they would walk and come back about five in the afternoon,” he narrated. The MLC would then advance on an area if the intelligence gathered by the boys indicated that it was safe to do so.
‘Witness 63,’ who started giving evidence yesterday, testified about the movement of Mr. Bemba’s troops in the PK 12 and PK 24 suburbs of Bangui. He described how the Congolese fighters robbed cell phones from civilians and then exchanged them for alcohol, and how they forcefully occupied civilians’ houses.
‘Witness 63’ continues his testimony Tuesday, May 17.