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Witness Says Bemba’s Troops ‘Had to Fend For Themselves’

The trial of war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC) resumed today after a month’s hiatus to hear the testimony of the 26th prosecution witness who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness 173’. He recounted the atrocities committed by the accused’s militia, and stated that since Mr. Bemba did not pay his troops, the fighters had to fend for themselves.

The witness detailed widespread looting by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), and recalled that Mr. Bemba’s fighters targeted Central African Muslims of Chadian origin who they wantonly killed. He did not say in open court why this group was targeted. ‘Witness 173’ testified with protective measures including voice and image distortion, and gave most of his testimony in closed session in order to protect his identity.

The witness also said that 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. 

Mr. Bemba, a former Congolese vice president, is on trial at the Hague-based court for failing to punish or stop his soldiers as they carried out mass rapes, plunder and killings in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) during the 2002-2003 conflict. He has denied the charges.

Asked by prosecution trial lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga whether any disciplinary measures were against rampaging MLC soldiers, ‘Witness 173’ replied: “Not at all. They [MLC] were not afraid of anything because there were no rules. There was no military police within their movement.”

According to the witness, the MLC did not pay its soldiers. Instead, he continued, the soldiers 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.

Furthermore, the witness testified that CAR’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé had no control over Mr. Bemba’s troops during their stay in the country. “The troops were answerable directly to Bemba,” he stated. 

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. Furthermore, it is Mr. Bemba’s defense that once his troops crossed the Oubangui river at the DRC–CAR border, he had no control over them as they then fell under the command of Mr. Patassé.

The trial continues tomorrow morning to continue hearing the evidence of ‘Witness 173’.