Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson is one of two lawyers representing victims who are participating in the trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Bemba, whose trial at The Hague-based court started on November 22, 2010, is on trial over his alleged failure to control his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops, who reportedly raped, murdered, and looted while they were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and 2003. Earlier this month, Ms. Douzima-Lawson spoke to www.bembatrial.org about the importance of victims participating in this trial and the traumatization of CAR civilians during the conflict in that country.
Wakabi Wairagala: How many victims are there in the Bemba trial and what is the largest category in number of victims (e.g. victims of sexual assault or looting)?
Douzima-Lawson: To date 1,313 victims are admitted by the Chamber to participate in the proceedings in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba. It is difficult to specify the largest number of victims in relation to the crimes, given the high number of applications and the fact that more than 400 petitions are still being examined.
WW: What challenges do you face in representing so many victims?
DL: It is in these proceedings that there is in fact the largest number of victims eligible to participate. In addition, the decision concerning joint legal representation was not issued until a few days before the trial started. Due to the manner in which the distribution was made, I have found myself with many cases of victims that I have never met. Also, I must learn about the almost 700 victims I represent, if not meet with them, in order to present all their views and concerns to the Chamber.
WW: Are you satisfied so far with the role that the victims have played in the Bemba trial? Would you like them to play a more important role?
DL: The victims are playing an important role in the trial, but I do wish that they would play an even larger role, since they are at the center of the Rome Statute. I wish they could go from being involved to being a party to the proceedings alongside the prosecution and the defense and that their views would be required for all matters relating to the proceedings.
WW: What are the victims’ expectations from this trial? And what are their main concerns?
DL: The victims expect that justice will finally be done, and they complain about the length of the proceedings. They also wonder whether J.P. Bemba will be able to compensate such a large number of victims if he is convicted.
WW: What kind of testimony has been heard in the testimony given so far at the Bemba trial from the victims of the crimes committed by the MLC on the citizens of the CAR?
DL: All the testimony has mentioned all aspects of the charges against J.P. Bemba namely rape, pillage, and murder. This testimony has allowed us to clearly identify the alleged perpetrators, their strategies and methods, locations, chains of command, and the consequences on the victims.
WW: Are you satisfied with the charges brought by the Prosecutor’s Office against Mr. Bemba, or were you hoping that other charges would be brought against him? And do you think the charges that were not brought against him could have been addressed in the current trial?
DL: I am satisfied with the charges brought by the Prosecutor’s Office against J.P. Bemba. However, I regret of course that the Chamber did not keep the charge of torture against him as part of this trial, since torture is actually in the evidence as part of the perpetrating of the rapes as well as looting, which were always preceded by threats at gunpoint. Thus, most rapes, as well as the looting, were perpetrated collectively in public, sometimes in the presence of the victims’ relatives. This practice was intended to terrorize the peaceful population of the CAR.
WW: The CAR victims need to know the progress of the Bemba trial. How are they currently being informed about the trial and do you think that what is being done is sufficient?
DL: In accordance with the decision on common legal representation, both teams [of legal representatives for victims] have a legal assistant in the field in the CAR. It is these legal assistants who are responsible for notifying victims by various means and gathering their views and concerns and passing them along to us.
The public awareness section of the ICC in Bangui is also providing general information to the public. However, during a mission to the CAR last April, we realized that the victims absolutely wanted to have direct contact with the ICC legal representatives, which we are, in order to be more reassured, and that’s what we have done.
WW: The judges have established guidelines for the questioning of rape victims. Do you feel that these have been adequately taken into account or have there been cases where victims have suffered re-traumatization or felt extremely uncomfortable during questioning?
DL: The way in which the crime of rape was perpetrated necessarily involves a lifetime trauma for the victims. Therefore, despite the guidelines adopted by the Chamber for the questioning of witnesses who have the status of victims and especially victims of sexual crime, the latter often break down when they tell their stories. This is an inevitable situation that cannot be blamed on the parties and participants.
WW: Are you satisfied with the protective measures granted to witnesses and the support provided by the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) to the victims and witnesses? Can they do more to protect and support witnesses and victims?
DL: The protection measures are granted on a case by case basis and in my opinion are satisfactory, but some circumstances may render them ineffective in some cases. Thus, a witness may be identified by his narration through his story, or even because he himself has spoken about it. To my knowledge, no witness has actually complained about the quality of support provided the Victims and Witnesses Unit.
WW: From the stories heard so far, how did the MLC use rape as a weapon of war in the CAR? What was the extent of this phenomenon and, according to witness statements, what was the MLC’s main motivation for committing these rapes?
DL: The facts have shown that rape was systematic, as was pillage, and was perpetrated in a humiliating way, anywhere, anytime, by multiple rapists, in the presence of the victims’ relatives, and these victims were from all categories. These rapes were committed in all the locations where the MLC reigned supreme.
It is also clear from the victims’ testimonies confirmed by the Central African psychiatric expert, who personally interviewed a significant number of victims, that the communities targeted were supposedly those that the MLC considered to be favorable to the rebels that they had in principle come to fight. So, in addition to the fact that they wanted to vent sexually, the rape as described allowed them to destabilize the enemy and punish the victims.
WW: What are the long-term consequences on Central African individuals and communities arising from the acts of violence allegedly committed by the MLC?
DL: There are many consequences arising from the acts of violence committed by the MLC. Among others, there is the sexual stigmatization of the victims and the dislocation of households, HIV/AIDS infection and other STDs [Sexually Transmitted Diseases], fear of men in uniform and trauma, disgust, suicide, death, the feeling of revulsion, anger, revenge, population displacement and change of residence, physical, sexual and moral handicaps, and increased poverty and misery.
WW: The defense argued that it was not Mr. Bemba but the late President Ange-Félix Patassé who should be tried before the ICC. What is your comment on this?
DL: It is certainly the late President Patassé who called on Bemba, not to come rape, pillage and kill civilians, but to repel the Central African rebellion that threatened his power.