Contrary to prosecution claims that Congolese war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba did not implement his militia’s code of conduct, his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) heard today that the accused instructed his commanders to enforce the code when he learned of crimes being committed by his fighters.
According to one communication log presented by defense lawyer Nkwebe Liriss, dated October 4, 2002, a sector commander transmits to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) Chief of General Staff an urgent message asking to convene a disciplinary council to handle the cases of two soldiers. One of them had allegedly killed a civilian, while the other had shot and injured a civilian in the leg.
The defense counsel also read out excerpts from the statement ‘Witness 65’ made to prosecution investigators. When the investigators asked the witness what the attitude of the accused was to the crimes his soldiers were committing, he replied that Mr. Bemba would ask for the code of conduct to be implemented and enforced. The witness is quoted in his statement to prosecutors as saying the accused “always wanted to be on good terms with the local population,” in explaining why Mr. Bemba wanted the code enforced.
“Do these documents [communication logs] collaborate the answer you gave to investigators of the Office of the Prosecutor?” asked Mr. Nkwebe.
“Yes, I can confirm that,” replied the witness. He testified with his face and image distorted, as well as the use of private session, in order to protect his identity.
This witness is a former MLC insider, whose testimony today appeared to discredit evidence heard from previous insider witnesses. According to the previous insiders who have testified, although the armed group had a code of conduct, it was hardly communicated to the troops.
Furthermore, some insider witnesses have claimed that the code of conduct was only occasionally enforced through makeshift “extraordinary” military tribunals ordered by Mr. Bemba to try soldiers suspected of involvement in criminal activity. These witnesses have also asserted that judges who sat on these tribunals were appointed by Mr. Bemba and simply implemented his orders.
The defense today presented another log from back in May 2000, in which Mr. Bemba was instructing his brigade commanders to enforce the code. It read: “Pursuant to the code of conduct governing military discipline within the MLC, and part 5.5 which deals with offences such as killing a civilian, treason, going AWOL (absent without leave), engaging in subversion, rape, abduction or disobeying legal orders, the death penalty is required and the president of the MLC high command is of such opinion.”
The communication goes on to state that actual guilt should be established and verified by the disciplinary committee of the MLC in order to avoid pointless deaths of soldiers. “I expressly order you to apply the sentence that is provided for these offences and to provide me with an ad hoc report on these matters,” concluded Mr. Bemba’s communication.
Two other communication logs, which purportedly showed that the MLC code was enforced, were read out in detail in closed session.
Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for allegedly failing to take action, as the commander-in-chief of the MLC, against his soldiers who prosecutors say committed mass rapes, killings, and plunder against the Central African civilian population during 2002 and 2003. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of war crimes and three crimes against humanity.
Hearings in the trial continue tomorrow morning, with further cross-examination by the defense of ‘Witness 65.’