The Jean-Pierre Bemba trial this week heard that the accused gave direct and frequent orders to his fighters who were stationed in the Central African Republic (CAR) and that the country’s leader at the time, Ange-Félix Patassé, did not have powers over those troops.
The trial also heard that Mr. Bemba took possession of vehicles which his troops had looted from Central Africans. Furthermore, the trial was told that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters were received as ‘liberators’ in some of the areas that they captured from rebels who were attempting to overthrow Mr. Patassé.
Two witnesses gave testimony this week, both testifying with the use of pseudonyms and protective measures intended to keep their identities secret. The witnesses were the 26th and 27th called by prosecutors since the opening of the trial last November.
‘Witness 178’ testified that although Mr. Patassé was the president, MLC troops fighting on his side took orders from Mr. Bemba. He said the country’s president did not have the power to punish errant MLC troops. He added, however, that when the Congolese troops arrived in the CAR, they were given uniforms, Kalashnikovs, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga, ‘Witness 178’ also stated that MLC officers received communication devices from the CAR government in order to facilitate their operations.
The witness testified that the MLC had fighters of various ethnicities. According to him, Central African youngsters belonging to the Mbaka ethnic group joined Mr. Bemba’s group. Amongst themselves, these youngsters spoke Lingala, a native Congolese language. However, they were also able to express themselves in Sango and Mbaka, two of the dialects spoken in the CAR.
The witness said, “Fifty percent of these [MLC] troops were of the Mbaka ethnicity, 40 percent Congolese, and 10 percent Rwandans.” The Mbaka people are found both in the CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“How could a Central African recognize a member of the MLC from other soldiers on the ground?” asked Mr. Badibanga.
Besides speaking Lingala, said the witness, the Congolese soldiers could be recognized on the basis of their clothing and their accent. Most of the Congolese soldiers wore “plastic boots” and “used makeup.”
‘Witness 178’ also testified that Mr. Bemba took vehicles that his men had looted from civilians. He did not say how many vehicles they were. Mr. Badibanga asked whether Mr. Bemba knew that these were looted vehicles.
The witness replied, “Where would Mustafa have found the vehicles? When he left the DRC he had nothing, then all of a sudden he has large vehicles. How else would he have got those vehicles if they had not been looted? What he [Bemba] should have done was to say ‘I don’t like those vehicles, take them back to the CAR’ but what he did, he took those vehicles in that compound.”
‘Witness 178’ testified that only Mr. Bemba issued orders to General Mustafa Mukiza, who was the overall commander of the MLC troops who were in the neighboring country.
He stated that he could not understand why an “intellectual” like Mr. Bemba failed to stop his soldiers from committing rapes and murders, yet he was aware they were committing these crimes.
“It was within his power to use the Thuraya [satellite phone] to call and say ‘stop what you are doing’ and yet those people did all that with impunity,” stated the witness. “So I say he participated fully in the rapes, the pillaging, the killings in the Central African Republic because he didn’t on a single occasion open his mouth to tell people to stop those things.”
The former Congolese vice president stands accused of taking no action as his fighters brutalized CAR civilians during 2002 and 2003. He has denied all five charges against him.
‘Witness 178’ also provided the names and ranks of 20 senior MLC officers who were in the CAR. They included three colonels, three majors, four captains, and six lieutenants.
At the start of the week, ‘Witness 173’ who first appeared last week recounted numerous atrocities allegedly committed by Mr. Bemba’s troops. However, the defense showed video footage in which MLC soldiers were described as “liberators.”
The footage consisted of interviews Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist Gabriel Kahn conducted with residents of Sibut, one of the locations where International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops committed widespread rape, murder, and pillaging.
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, an individual who described himself as a refugee in Sibut stated that the town’s residents disliked Francois Bozizé’s rebel 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.
In the second video, the mayor of Sibut mentioned that some Chadian traders in the town, many of whom were Muslims, had been murdered by Mr. Bozizé’s rebels. The mayor 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.
The mayor also recounted a number of verbal complaints of looting and rape committed by Mr. Bozizé’s rebels, which he said he received from civilians.
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.
In another video, 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, as well as another Sibut resident and civil servant with the Ministry for Food and Sports were also interviewed and they praised the conduct of the MLC.
The trial continues on Monday.