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Why Central African Judge Let Off Bemba But Wanted Patassé Charged

The sole witness to testify this week in the trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was Pamphile Oradimo, a senior judge in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

His testimony centered on the reasons why he ordered the dismissal of charges that his country’s prosecutor attempted to bring against Mr. Bemba and why he sanctioned charges against former Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé. “This was to avoid any possible diplomatic problems with our neighboring country,” he said.

Mr. Oradimo told the trial, presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner, that he did not find sufficient evidence implicating Mr. Bemba in crimes allegedly committed by his troops during 2002 and 2003. Besides, once Mr. Bemba became vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it became imprudent to try him in Bangui, the witness asserted.

On the other hand, Mr. Oradimo upheld the recommendation by his country’s prosecutor that Mr. Patassé should be tried because he had overall command of both the CAR armed forces and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers Mr. Bemba had sent to the country to help its head of state to beat back a coup attempt.

Mr. Patassé was deposed in March 2003, after which the MLC withdrew back to DRC and Mr. Patassé went into exile. He returned to Bangui in December 2009 to contest a presidential election, which he lost earlier this year. Mr. Patassé passed away last month, even as the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution office was still investigating those who could be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to the Central African conflict.

Prosecutors at the ICC charge that during this conflict, Mr. Bemba’s troops raped, pillaged, and murdered civilians. Mr. Bemba has denied all five charges against him.

In court this week, Mr. Oradimo recounted his investigations into those responsible for those crimes. He testified in open court without any protective measures.

Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur, Mr. Oradimo, who was appointed in August 2003, recalled that on his first day in office, he found a case file from his country’s prosecutor regarding murder, rape, looting, and financial crimes committed during the conflict. The file implicated a number of individuals, amongst them Mr. Patassé and Mr. Bemba.

He narrated that his own investigation heard from both victims of the brutalities and suspects. The victims he heard were those referred to him as part of a medical investigation carried out by a unit financed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The unit consisted of a magistrate, two doctors, a psychiatrist, and social workers.

Mr. Oradimo did not recall how many reports he received from the unit or how many victims and witnesses he interviewed in direct relation to these files. “We had people whose parents had been killed, people who had been victims of pillaging, people who received wounds. The people received at the unit were mostly women who were victims of rape,” he said. The questioning of the victims and witnesses lasted over a year, beginning in October 2003 until November 2004. With regard to the suspects in the investigations, Mr. Oradimo stated that only those drawn up on the prosecution’s list were interviewed.

The individuals and military officers, some interviewed as suspects and others as witnesses, included General Ferdinand Bombayake, who headed Mr. Patassé’s Presidential Guard, and former Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé. Others were the former Deputy Director-General of Presidential Security; the former Deputy Minister for Defense; the former Army Chief of Staff; and close associates of former president Patassé. 

Earlier last month, the trial heard from the Central African Prosecutor–General, Firmin Feindiro, who testified about an investigation he led into the perpetrators of the crimes. He stated that neither Mr. Bemba nor Mr. Patassé was charged as a result of his probe, although he had recommended that both stand trial in the CAR. The probe by Mr. Oradimo resulted from the recommendations made to the judge by the country’s top prosecutor.

On Thursday, defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba asked Mr. Oradimo what the legal basis of his order to dismiss the charges was.

“The legal foundation is because he was the vice president of the DRC, and I was not able to question him, and I didn’t have enough evidence in order to be able to determine whether or not he was liable,” replied Mr. Oradimo.

However, while the Central African judge ordered the charges against Mr. Bemba to be dismissed, he sanctioned charges against several other individuals. These individuals included Mr. Patassé and Mr. Bombayake.

Mr. Kilolo-Musamba read out excerpts of an appeal that the Bangui prosecutor filed against the order by Mr. Oradimo for dismissal of the cases against Mr. Bemba. The document mentioned the lack of sufficient evidence, Mr. Bemba’s involvement not having amounted to criminal activity, and the CAR’s amnesty law. He asked the witness whether these were indeed the reasons why he issued the dismissal order.

Mr. Oradimo responded, “The work which we did was not only concerning accusations against Bemba. If you go through the investigation [report], you will see that there are very few people who talk about Mr. Bemba’s actions in the country. The answer we had is that people didn’t know.”

The witness continued, “We also heard that the contact between Bemba and Patassé was discrete so people didn’t know what he had done, or [was] accused of doing in the CAR. So in the file there is very little that can be seen as counts against Mr. Bemba.”

In his report to the ICC, Mr. Feindiro stated that Mr. Patassé – not Mr. Bemba – had command responsibility over the MLC forces who were in the CAR at the time. “When an offensive or counteroffensive was organized, it was the president that organized it…This has been borne out by General Bombayake, who maintained that it was Patassé who decided on everything and that he [Bombayake] would only implement the instructions received,” he said his report.

According to the probe by Mr. Feindiro, Mr. Bombayake’s unit was the only one of the Central African armed forces who worked with the MLC. Part of a document apparently authored by Mr. Feindiro, which defense counsel Kilolo-Musamba read out in court, stated that since the MLC were under the command of Mr. Bombayake, they could not have killed, raped, or looted except under his instructions.

The Bangui judge stated that he did not gather any evidence on the criminal responsibility of Mr. Bemba for crimes committed during the conflict. Instead, he said he asked the military commanders about the organization and command of operations during the armed campaign in which Mr. Bemba’s fighters took part.

Mr. Oradimo will continue giving evidence on Monday, May 9.