The only witness to testify in open session in the Bemba trial this week said fighters belonging to the accused’s militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), forcefully occupied his house for three months and left behind military documents when they withdrew.
Flavien Mbata, a director in the Constitutional Court of the Central African Republic (CAR), testified in the trial of Congolese war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba for four days via video link from his country’s capital Bangui.
Mr. Mbata narrated how rebels led by General Francois Bozizé attempted to topple the country’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé on October 25, 2002. The rebels, who were based in the northern part of the country, advanced on the capital Bangui, passing through Point Kilomètre 12, or PK 12.
He said that seven days later on November 1, 2002, Mr. Bemba’s militia arrived in PK 12. That day, he received a phone call from an individual going by the in-court pseudonym ‘Mary’ informing him that these troops had invaded his house.
The witness and his family fled and went to live with his parents, returning three months later learning that the soldiers had departed, only to find their house had been looted.
“The only thing that we were able to recover is the pick-up vehicle that was recovered by my bodyguard. My own property, I was not able to recover anything. I was simply told that they had taken the property away to some unknown destination,” said Mr. Mbata.
He also testified that he found on the floor of his bedroom some documents authored by the MLC. He gave those documents to International Criminal Court (ICC) investigators. These documents, which included an information bulletin and a military training manual, were both headed “Congolese Liberation Army.”
“What was the substance of the documents?” asked prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur.
“The training manual was to be used for military training,” explained the witness, who was previously a prosecutor in Bangui. “The typed or handwritten document, at the heading it said MLC, and they were reports drafted by these militia men and [appeared] to be sent on to their superiors.”
Asked how he knew that MLC soldiers had authored the documents, Mr. Mbata replied, “Simply because I found them in my bedroom immediately after their departure.” He said the documents were written in military style.
Ms. Kneur asked why he kept the documents. Mr. Mbata responded, “I wanted to keep them for memories’ sake because at the time I did not think there would be a trial for those who looted my home.”
The witness also testified that soldiers from the CAR army looked on as Congolese soldiers brutalized civilians in Bangui. Even when Central African civilians reported to their soldiers that the foreign fighters were brutalizing them, no action was taken. Mr. Mbata described how he asked a particular military officer referred to in court as ‘Nick’ to evict soldiers who had taken over his house, but this officer took no action.
“I asked that person [Nick] whether he could do something, that the house they were occupying was not the house of a politician but a judge and therefore they should leave my home,” Mr. Mbata narrated. The witness said he did not receive feedback from ‘Nick.’
Prosecutors at the ICC charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops raped, pillaged, and murdered civilians in the CAR during the 2002-2003 conflict and that Mr. Bemba as their commander-in-chief failed to restrain or sanction them. He denies the charges.
Mr. Bemba’s defense challenged Mr. Mbata, and he conceded that he was not sure whether the soldiers who pillaged his home belonged to the accused’s group. The witness asserted that the facts relating to the occupation of his home were given to him by individuals referred to in court as ‘Peter’ and ‘Mary.’
When the ICC opened investigations into the crimes committed in the CAR, Mr. Mbata submitted to a court investigator documents he says he found on the floor of his bedroom, which were allegedly authored by the MLC. He also gave the court official – referred to in court as ‘Francoise’ – the statements made by ‘Peter’ and ‘Mary’ to the local police regarding the occupation of his house. The witness also handed ‘Francoise’ a list of items looted from his home and details of the damage caused to his house.
Mr. Mbata testified that he asked the Gendarme, or local police, to interview ‘Peter’ and ‘Mary’ “in order to complete the case file” on the occupation and looting of his home.
“Are we therefore to understand that your evidence is made up of the report you signed in 2008 – five years after the facts, the interview reports of ‘Peter’ and ‘Mary’ – interviews that were conducted at your request and the reports of which were drawn up more than five years after the events, and documents you allege belong to the MLC?” asked defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba.
“Yes, that is correct,” replied Mr. Mbata.
The witness explained that because he was personally not at his home when it was invaded, he could not tell who actually pillaged it. However, after the intruders withdrew, he was able to recover beds, a chandelier, garden furniture, and a cupboard. Young men in the neighborhood informed Mr. Mbata that his car had been abandoned around Point Kilomètre 11 (PK 11), so he was also able to recover it too.
“Is it true that you were unable to identify who would have tried to steal or pillage this car?” the defense lawyer asked.
“I was not able to identify [who took the vehicle], but this vehicle was on the compound. Surely it was the people who occupied the compound who would have tried to steal it,” replied Mr. Mbata. “But as I said, I was not in the area, I can’t give you any other clarification.”
Mr. Mbata also stated that besides informing ‘Nick’ of the MLC’s occupation of his home, he did not report the incident to any other authorities. He only reported the looting, on September 24, 2008 (six years later) to the Gendarme when he learned that the ICC had opened investigations into the crimes committed and that witnesses and victims could come forward.
In his testimony, Mr. Mbata told of the numerous occasions he saw the Congolese soldiers driving from PK 12 to the center of Bangui. They travelled in green Central African military vehicles, and they were often accompanied by high-ranking officers of the CAR army.
Previous witnesses have stated that the MLC disarmed Central African soldiers and did not allow them into the areas where the Congolese troops were. The trial has also heard that at one time there was a fire fight when local soldiers attempted to stop Mr. Bemba’s troops from transporting looted goods to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The MLC were in that country to help its former president fight off a coup attempt.
This week also saw the beginning of testimony from ‘witness 169’ start giving his evidence, but Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said it would all be in closed session. Hearing of his evidence continues on Monday.