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Witness Says Bemba Set up Tribunal to Try Rowdy Soldiers

A prosecution witness today stated that war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s rebel group set up a military tribunal to try its soldiers who were suspected of involvement in crimes of rape, murder, and looting in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Testifying with face and voice distortion in order to protect his identity from the public, the witness said the trials were aimed “to improve the image of the movement.”

Continuing his testimony from last week, ‘Witness 33,’ whose evidence seemed to indicate that he was an insider in the accused’s group, stated that the tribunal was set up as a result of numerous field reports about the crimes committed by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers deployed in the neighboring country.

The trials, which the witness said started after the withdrawal of the troops from the Central African capital Bangui, were conducted in the Congolese town of Gbadolite, a few kilometers south of the Central African border. Gbadolite was the headquarters of Mr. Bemba’s rebel group, which went to the CAR to support its then president Ange-Félix Patassé to fight off a coup attempt.

Without giving the specific number of troops indicted or how he came to know about the tribunal, ‘Witness 33’ said that only low ranking soldiers were put on trial. He asserted that no high ranking officers were punished for the crimes allegedly committed in the CAR.

“Some soldiers were convicted, but I cannot provide you with details on the nature of the sentences handed down,” stated the witness.

Asked by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga whether the MLC had an ethics code upon which trials were based, ‘Witness 33’ replied in the affirmative.

However, added the witness, “The code of conduct was in French, and French was not the language lower class military members understood.” He said most MLC recruits were illiterate and, thus, were not aware of what the code required of them.

He continued, “When a problem arose, the code of conduct was in the bottom of the drawer and people would get up and brandish it. They would say this rule has been infringed and therefore there must be punishment.”

‘Witness 33’ also testified that the MLC had an “extraordinary court” whose members were appointed by Mr. Bemba as commander-in-chief, in consultation with the army chief of staff. The witness said trials and sentencing in this court were based on Mr. Bemba’s orders, and the judges simply implemented them in order to make them appear “of a military or judicial nature.”

The tribunal that tried those suspected of committing crimes in the neighboring country was a replica of this extraordinary court, he said, but did not state in open court what role Mr. Bemba personally played in the trials of those implicated in the CAR crimes.

Mr. Bemba is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly failing to discipline his soldiers who brutalized Central African civilians. He has denied the three war crimes and two crimes against humanity with which he is charged.

Victims’ lawyers will start questioning ‘Witness 33’  Tuesday morning.