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Only Bemba’s Soldiers Were Present in Pillaged Town

A new prosecution witness in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba today 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.

At the start of his testimony this morning, ‘witness 209’ described widespread pillaging, which he said the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) carried out in Damara 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.”

On Tuesday, ‘witness 209’ was granted protective measures by ICC judges in order to protect 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.

While being questioned by prosecution lawyer Massimo Scaliotti, the witness stated in open court that the MLC looting took place in residential neighborhoods of Damara. “That is where they took over and that is where they carried out their pillaging,” he stated.

Prosecutors at the ICC charge that Mr. Bemba, 48, failed to stop or punish his troops as they raped, murdered, and plundered civilians of the Central African Republic (CAR). 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 François 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.

“There were no Libyan troops in Damara,” replied the witness. He 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],” stated the witness. 

The trial continues to hear the evidence of ‘witness 209’ tomorrow morning.