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Victims’ Lawyers Permitted to Question Insider Witnesses

International Criminal Court (ICC) trial judges have permitted victims’ lawyers to question insider witnesses, who represent the last category of witnesses prosecutors have planned to call in the Bemba trial.

The defense for war crimes accused Congolese senator Jean-Pierre Bemba had objected to the applications by two legal representatives of victims participating in trial to question the insider witnesses. According to the defense, these witnesses were “collectively unlikely to be able to give evidence which impacts upon the personal interests of the victims.”

However, on September 9, judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki rejected the defense’s argument, determining that “the interests of victims are not limited to the physical commission of the alleged crimes under consideration.”

The judges added, “Rather, their interests extend to the question of the person or persons who should be held liable for those crimes, whether physical perpetrators or others. In this respect, victims have a general interest in the proceedings and in their outcome. As such, they have an interest in making sure that all pertinent questions are put to witnesses.”

According to the judges, this position was set out in Rule 91(3) of the procedures governing the ICC, which provides that legal representatives may be permitted to question experts and the accused, as well as fact witnesses. In the trials being conducted by the ICC, victims’ lawyers are permitted to attend all court hearings, including those held in private session. Some victims have dual status, meaning they are first of all victims but also testify as witnesses.

For victims’ lawyers to be granted permission to question a particular witness, they need to show that the testimony by that witness touches on their personal interests. More than 1,000 victims are participating in the trial of Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who is being tried for allegedly failing to control his troops who carried out mass rapes, killings, and plunder during 2002 and 2003.

These crimes were reportedly committed in the Central African Republic, where the accused had sent his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops to aid that country’s government, which faced an armed insurrection.

To-date, the prosecution has called 28 of its 40 planned witnesses. Most of those waiting to take the witness stand are insider witnesses who, say prosecutors, will directly link Mr. Bemba to the crimes he has been charged with. ‘Witness 33,’ a former MLC insider whose cross-examination last week was conducted mainly in closed session, is expected to complete his testimony today.

The trial continues on Friday this week.