War crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers were today described as “liberators” in video footage shown in court by his defense. The footage consisted of interviews Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist Gabriel Kahn conducted with residents of Sibut town.
Sibut is one of the locations where International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops committed widespread rape, murder, and pillaging against the civilian population of the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and March 2003. The Congolese troops were in the country to help forces loyal to then president Ange-Félix Patassé to fight off a rebel insurgency led by François Bozizé. It is for these alleged crimes that Mr. Bemba, as commander-in-chief of the MLC, is on trial at The Hague-based court. He has denied all five charges against him.
Several prosecution witnesses have testified about the brutal crimes committed in Sibut, purportedly by the MLC. However, in the first of the interviews shown in court today, an individual who described himself as a refugee in Sibut stated that the town’s residents disliked Mr. Bozizé’s troops because “the inhabitants were suffering” when it was under the control of the Bozizé rebels but had become happy after being “liberated” by the MLC. It was not clear when the interviews were conducted.
In the second video, the mayor of Sibut was shown being asked about allegations of Muslims being killed. He responded that he had received no such complaints. However, he mentioned that some Chadian traders in the CAR, many of whom were Muslims, had been assassinated by Mr. Bozizé’s rebels. When asked by Mr. Kahn if the killings could have been committed by forces loyal to Mr. Patassé, the mayor replied, “I am not aware of anything of that nature.”
The mayor then thanked the Patassé’s loyalist forces for liberating Sibut and suggested that the MLC should stay on in the town until its residents were fully safe. He said the early departure of Mr. Bemba’s troops would portend danger for the town’s residents.
“They [Bozizé’s rebels] threw us out of our homes. We spent nights in the bush. We drunk dirty water, we have worms. They emptied our hospital, they have taken everything away,” the Sibut’s mayor said in the video screened in court.
The mayor also recounted a number of verbal complaints of looting and rape by Mr. Bozizé’s rebels, which he said he received from civilians. However, he said, none of the complaints were ever followed up as his office had been shattered during the conflict.
Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness whether he was aware of any information that collaborated the views of the mayor and the refugee. ‘Witness 173’ said he could not elaborate on the details of the video footage. He maintained that those were the views of the individuals interviewed.
“I was never in Sibut. I know nothing about Sibut,” affirmed the witness.
‘Witness 173,’ who started giving evidence last Tuesday, concluded his testimony this afternoon after recounting numerous atrocities allegedly committed by Mr. Bemba’s troops. He testified with image and voice distortion and gave most of his evidence in closed session in order to protect his identity.
In another video shown in court today, a vicar of a seminary in Sibut was shown being interviewed by the RFI journalist. Like the other Sibut residents shown before him, the vicar spoke of looting by Mr. Bozizé’s rebels upon their arrival in the town in October 2002.
“We called them [Bozizé’s rebels] our brothers, but they were here to harm us. When Bemba’s troops arrived, we were liberated,” the vicar said.
The president of a local women’s organization in the CAR and also a resident of Sibut, was shown in another video clip. She described the lack of medicine and food for four months having been a result of the Bozizé rebels’ occupation of Sibut. She also said the town had become “happy” after being taken over by Mr. Bemba’s troops.
Another Sibut resident and civil servant with the Ministry for Food and Sports was interviewed and rejected the account of the situation in Sibut as broadcast on local radio. “It was on the February 14, 2003 that the MLC arrived in Sibut. Upon their arrival, no houses were destroyed, no members of the population hesitated to gather. No cases of looting reports,” said this resident.
“Was it the same MLC troops in Damara town? Was it the same troops that liberated Sibut?” Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked.
“Yes, the same troops,” replied the witness, who then gave the rest of his testimony in private session.
The trial continues tomorrow morning with testimony from a new witness going by the pseudonym ‘Witness 178.’