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‘Important Witness’ Will Give All Testimony in Private Session

A witness, who the prosecution has described as especially important and would provide evidence that the court had not heard before, today started giving testimony in the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Before the witness appeared, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner declared that he would testify completely in closed session. She said than rather than exposing the identity of the witness to the public, judges had decided to balance their duty to respect the principle of publicity for the court’s work and their obligation to protect witnesses and victims by ordering prosecutors to publish a redacted version of the testimony by ‘witness 169.’

Judges directed prosecutors to work with the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) to make redactions to the transcript of the testimony as soon as the witness completed giving evidence. The redacted version would be made public after authorization by judges.

Earlier, parties to the trial debated whether to start hearing the evidence of this witness today, after prosecutors asked judges to allow them question ‘witness 169’ for a longer period than they had earlier indicated. In response, the defense asked to question the witness for 12 hours and not eight hours as it had proposed earlier.

Judge Steiner had explained that the last day the court would sit before the summer judicial recess, which starts on July 15, would be July 12, as judges had to attend a plenary session and attend to administrative issues before they took their summer break. If it were not possible to hear the evidence of ‘witness 169’ by July 12, parties to the trial had to consider having part of his testimony heard before the recess and the rest after court resumed in early August, or to hear all his evidence after the recess.

“This is an important witness for us. He will be providing this court with information that other witnesses haven’t brought to the attention of this court,” explained trial lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga. “It is for this reason that we applied for an extension of time, given that we felt that we would need more time to be able to exhaustively deal with the material and evidence that this witness is able to provide to this chamber.”

Prosecutors opposed hearing part of the testimony by ‘witness 169’ before the recess and the rest after the recommencement. They said the witness would find it extremely difficult to return to court after the recess due to his personal circumstances.

Mr. Badibanga said although the prosecution was open to hearing all the evidence by ‘witness 169’ before the recess, “the problem with that proposal is that the witness will realize that, even though we may act professionall…that we’ll somewhat be in a rush during his examination.”

Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, who is one of the legal representatives of victims participating in the trial, stated that there were likely to be difficulties if the witness gave part of his testimony before the recess and the rest when court reconvened. She added that recalling the witness was likely to be prejudicial to the proceedings.

Judges ruled that there was no way testimony by the witness would be suspended for a month, as this would leave him in The Hague “without freedom of circulation or contact with family members.”

Accordingly, judges declined the request for prosecutors to question the witness for longer than the eight hours they asked for at the start of the trial, and also decided that the two legal representatives would have one hour between them. The defense would question the witness for 10 hours, not the 12 they requested for this week, but an improvement on the eight hours they had initially suggested.

‘Witness 169’ continues his testimony on Monday.