There were three main highlights in Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial this week. First, the prosecution called their 23rd witness. Second, the witness claimed that the war crimes accused regularly telephoned one of his commanders, who was in the Central African Republic (CAR). Third, the defense appeared to punch holes in the testimony of the previous prosecution witness.
At the start of the week, the defense focused on inconsistencies between the oral testimony given by ‘witness 110’ and the written statements she made earlier to International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution investigators. In court, she described the shooting of a woman just outside her compound, allegedly by soldiers of Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). According to statements the witness made to investigators, the unidentified woman was shot on the day the MLC arrived in her neighborhood in late October 2002.
Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness to confirm that the alleged murder took place on October 30, 2002.
“No,” replied the witness, who testified with protective measures, including voice and image distortion. She added that it was possible there was an error in the statement she provided prosecution investigators.
“Could you confirm to the Chamber when the murder of the woman who [walked]…in front of your compound occurred?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
The witness replied, “It was the next day.”
In her testimony last week, ‘witness 110’ recounted how armed MLC men looted property from her house and that of her neighbor. She said a group of MLC soldiers arrived at her neighbor’s compound in October 2002 and stayed there until mid-February 2003. She added that as one group of soldiers pillaged goods from her neighbor’s house and loaded them onto a military vehicle, other soldiers looted her own house and took “everything you can take.”
However, according to the statement she made to investigators in March 2009, sections of which the defense lawyer read out in court, the witness stated that after fleeing her home, she often went back to her house to collect household items.
“How often did you go to your house?” Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked.
“When I fled, I did not take my personal belongings with me, so from time to time we tried to go back to the house to collect clothing and other small things from the house,” replied the witness.
The defense lawyer then asked the witness why she stated that soldiers took everything from her house. She responded that besides clothing, there was “a lot of other property of value in the house” that the looters did not take.
In another extract from the statement the witness made to investigators, she said that Mr. Bemba’s Congolese soldiers occupied her house until February 2003, but in her in-court testimony last week, she said they left her house on the same day of their arrival, that is, some time at the end of October 2002.
On Tuesday, the 23rd prosecution witness began his testimony. He described how MLC troops arrived in the town of Begua in CAR in November 2002 and stayed for three months. ‘Witness 112’ recalled seeing the Congolese troops enter the town: “Some had military trousers and ordinary t-shirts, while others were wearing ranger boots and others [were] in trainers.”
Upon their arrival, the MLC soldiers started firing indiscriminately, he said, and “then they started to break down doors and to loot houses.” The witness continued, “All the houses of persons who had fled were looted.”
Amongst the soldiers who marched into the town was a commander called “Major.” The witness was able to distinguish the commander because he carried a pistol and two mobile phones.
Mr. Bemba, the leader of the MLC, is on trial at The Hague-based ICC for allegedly failing to control his troops who raped, murdered, and plundered in the CAR during 2002 and 2003. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
While the defense has denied that Mr. Bemba had control over his forces, who were deployed in the CAR, this witness said Mr. Bemba regularly telephoned a commander of his militia in that country.
“He called in the morning, in the afternoon. He called several times,” said the ‘witness 112,’ who also testified with face and voice distortion, as well as the use of a pseudonym in order to protect his identity. However, the witness did not say in open court how he knew that it was Mr. Bemba who regularly called the unnamed MLC commander, who had pitched camp in the compound where the witness worked.
The witness recounted how a group of MLC soldiers arrived at the home where he worked as a guard, assaulted him, looted property, and occupied the house for three months. The house was in the town of Begua.
“When they came to break the house the first time, there were five of them. After breaking in, they alerted others and a greater number came in, about 15 of them,” testified ‘witness 112.’ The soldiers carted away all the property from the house, he said.
A “chief” was among the group of soldiers who occupied the master bedroom in the house. The witness said this chief possessed two telephones, with which he maintained contact with Mr. Bemba.
The witness said, “When he wanted to [make a] call, he used the small [phone]. With the large one, he just received calls.” He also testified that he learned about the telephone conversations between Mr. Bemba and the “chief” as he stayed with the MLC soldiers for 10 days during their occupation of the house, taking care of domestic chores. The witness did not provide in open court any details of the issues allegedly discussed on telephone by Mr. Bemba and his commander in Begua.
In his testimony, ‘witness 112’ also told the trial that MLC soldiers killed his wife and ransacked his house. Details of the murder were discussed in private session. In open court, the witness said the MLC took several items from his home, including a radio set, foam mattresses, clothing, a bed, a grinding mill, sewing machine, and kitchen utensils. He estimated that the damage caused to his house amounted to 1.5 million Central African Francs (USD 3,254) and the value of the items stolen was 1.7 million CFA (USD 3,700).
“I was impoverished. I no longer have a wife because she was killed by them, and so my children and I are suffering because of that,” said the witness when prosecuting lawyer Massimo Scaliotti asked about the effects of the MLC’s abuses on his life.
The trial takes a break next week and resumes on June 27.