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Central African Judge Says Local Soldiers Brutalized Civilians

A Central African judge testifying in Jean Pierre-Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has explained that his investigation found that local armed groups had committed crimes in his country before the arrival of Congolese troops led by the accused.

Mr. Bemba, 48, sent his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) rebels into areas around Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), to help then president Ange-Félix Patassé beat off a coup attempt. He is on trial because prosecutors at the ICC charge that he failed to control his troops as they allegedly raped, killed, and looted during their presence in that country between October 25, 2002 and March 15, 2003.

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.

Bangui’s senior judge Pamphile Oradimo, the 19th witness called by ICC prosecutors, stated at the trial today that 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 Abdoulaye Miskine and the Société centrafricaine de protection et desurveillance (SCPS) – a private security group led by Mr. Patassé’s chauffeur – 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, who started testifying in Mr. Bemba’s ICC trial last week. 

“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 defense lawyer Aime 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.

Mr. Oradimo continues his testimony tomorrow morning.