This week, the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba heard that the accused was in regular communication with army chiefs of the Central African Republic (CAR) during the 2002-2003 conflict period. However, the only witness who testified in the week conceded that he did not see the accused talking to the generals; instead, he said all the information he had on the issue was obtained from secondary parties.
‘Witness 173’ commenced his testimony on Tuesday, becoming the 26th prosecution witness to take the stand in the trial of the Congolese opposition leader at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He testified with protective measures including voice and image distortion, and gave most of his testimony in closed session in order to protect his identity.
At the start of his testimony, the witness recalled the rapes, killings and plunder carried out by soldiers from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) when they were deployed in the CAR capital Bangui. He explained that since Mr. Bemba did not pay his troops, the fighters had to fend for themselves. “When you send someone with a weapon to the front without paying them, they will take [things] by force and that is why so many atrocities were committed,” the witness said.
‘Witness 173’ said Mr. Bemba’s soldiers wantonly killed Central African Muslims of Chadian origin. The witness also said he heard numerous accounts of rapes committed by the Congolese soldiers: “I spoke to their leader [about the rapes]. They were not interested in such stories.” In open court, he did not say how he got to talk to the unnamed MLC leader but he stated that this individual did not deny that his soldiers were committing rapes.
Furthermore, the witness testified that CAR’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé had no control over the MLC, stating: “the troops were answerable directly to Bemba.”
Whilst acknowledging that he sent his troops to CAR to help the now deceased Patassé fight off a coup attempt, Mr. Bemba claims that numerous other armed groups active in the conflict could have committed the crimes he is charged with. Moreover, it is Mr. Bemba’s defense that once his troops crossed into the CAR, he had no control over them as they then fell under the command of Mr. Patassé.
But ‘Witness 173’ testified that MLC troops who were in the CAR were commanded by General Mustafa Mukiza, who was in “regular contact” with Mr. Bemba from whom the general took direct orders. The witness stated that for some period during the conflict period, he spent time with General Mukiza.
The alleged communication was via cellular and satellite telephone. From testimony heard in open court, it was unclear under what circumstances the witness came to be in General Mukiza’s company.
“I believe they [Bemba and Mustafa] were communicating regularly because Mustafa had to report to him the situation at the battlefront. I believe they were in touch on a daily basis,” said the witness. This was in response to questioning by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga about the frequency of communication between Mr. Bemba and General Mustafa.
A number of prosecution witnesses, including the Central African prosecutor-general, have testified that the MLC troops in the CAR were under the command of Mr. Patassé
Under cross-examination by the defense, the witness testified that the information he provided regarding the alleged collaboration between the CAR presidential guard and Mr. Bemba’s soldiers was obtained from secondary sources.
“Did you hear the exchanges between Mr. Bemba and the minister of defense of the CAR?” defense counsel Aimé Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness.
“No,” replied the witness.
Asked the same question with regard to communication between Mr. Bemba and the Central African army chief of staff, ‘Witness 173’ again replied in the negative.
In his earlier testimony, ‘Witness 173’ also stated that officers of the presidential guard shared military intelligence with Mr. Bemba’s soldiers. However, when Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked how the witness came to know about such co-operation, the witness responded that he got this information from some unnamed MLC leaders.
The witness stated that while the MLC had a code of conduct for its fighters, these rules were disregarded on the battlefield. He said he learnt of the code from one of the leaders of the group.
In his opening statement at the commencement of the trial last November, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Mr. Bemba promulgated a code of conduct which was applicable to all MLC soldiers, but most soldiers were not aware of the existence and content of the code.
‘Witness 173’ was also questioned by lawyers representing victims participating in the trial. Asked by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson about the role of Abdoulaye Miskine during the conflict, the witness said the troops under Mr. Miskine worked independently from the MLC but were responsible for numerous killings.
“Half the crimes committed at PK13 (a suburb of Bangui) were committed by Abdoulaye Miskine,” the witness asserted.
Mr. Miskine commanded a special commando unit outside of the central African army, which was responsible for fighting coup attempts against President Patassé. He reported directly to the president – and his unit has variously been cited by Mr. Bemba’s defense among the many armed groups which could have committed the crimes he is accused of.
The trial continues on Monday next week.