The defense in the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba today started its cross-examination of the 28th witness called by the prosecution, who is a former insider in the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the militia group led by the accused. The cross-examination, for the most part, was conducted in closed session.
In the brief moments of open session, ‘Witness 33’ stated that at the height of its political success, the MLC controlled a territory larger than France. “We controlled a major part of Équateur and Orientale,” he said. The witness testified with his face and image distorted from the public in order to protect his identity.
Équateur and Orientale are northern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo that border the Central African Republic (CAR).
“The MLC’s purpose was to provide safety, security, welfare, and quality of life for all the people that lived in the area it controlled, do you agree?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
“Indeed,” replied the witness.
Mr. Bemba is on trial at the International Criminal Court for failing to control his rampaging soldiers as they brutalized Central African civilians during 2002 and 2003. The soldiers were in that country to help its president at the time, Ange-Félix Patassé, to fight off a coup attempt. During this period, the MLC was a rebel group attempting to take over power from the government of Congolese president Joseph Kabila. However, following the signing of a peace agreement, the group’s troops were integrated into the national army and Mr. Bemba became one of Congo’s vice presidents.
In denying the charges against him, Mr. Bemba has argued that once his troops left Congolese territory, he had no effective control over them and that they fell under the direct command of Mr. Patassé.
‘Witness 33’, started giving testimony last Thursday. In his previous evidence, he described MLC commanded structures and stated that Mr. Bemba could issue direct orders to troops on the ground rather than going through the existing hierarchy and chain of command.
The witness also described Mr. Bemba as a charismatic leader whose “personal commitment” to the MLC was a source of “great motivation for the troops on the ground.”
In addition, ‘Witness 33’ has stated that the MLC set up a military tribunal to try its soldiers suspected of involvement in brutal crimes against CAR civilians. According to the witness, the trials were aimed ‘to improve the image of the movement.”
Meanwhile, earlier today, ‘Witness 33’ was questioned by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson and Assingambi Zarambaud who represent victims participating in the trial. The questioning was also largely carried out in closed session.
The defense continues its cross-examination of ‘Witness 33’ tomorrow afternoon.