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Bemba Trial Witness Worried About Safety of His Family

A witness currently giving evidence in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba today expressed concern over the safety of his family. However, the witness did not give the details of his concerns in open court.

Cyprien-Francis Ossibouyen, who is testifying publicly, has said that while he worked as a technician for the Central African Republic (CAR) river transport company, he ferried Mr. Bemba and his fighters on numerous occasions over the Oubangui River between their Congolese base and the CAR. He also recounted atrocities committed by the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers during their deployment in Central African towns in 2002 and 2003.

At the start of hearings this morning, Mr. Ossibouyen stated that he had heard some news from back home via telephone, which had unsettle him. Stating that judges were unaware of the nature of these concerns, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner ordered the hearing to revert to private session. Upon resumption, Judge Steiner adjourned the session for 30 minutes “for the chamber to decide whether you [witness] continue to testify in open or private session.”

When hearings recommenced, the nature of Mr. Ossibouyen’s concerns about his family remained unclear although he affirmed that he was willing to continue testifying in public.

Judge Steiner promised that the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) would take every possible measure to ensure that the witness’s family members were safe.

The VWU is a section of the ICC tasked with protecting persons working with the court, including those testifying trials. It ensures their safety and that of their families, provides counselling and psychological support and other assistance to persons who might be at risk as a result of participating in trials at the ICC.

Of the 32 prosecution witnesses so far heard in Mr. Bemba’s trial, the majority has testified with protective measures in order to keep their identities secret. In addition, names of individuals, places and organizations are often heard in closed session so as to render it difficult for the public to establish the identities of these individuals so they are not exposed to reprisal attack

Last February, ‘Witness 42’ who was in the middle of his testimony informed the trial that his son had been attacked with an axe. This witness testified with protective measures including image and voice distortion.

More recently, in a September 2011 ruling, trial judges declined yet another conditional release application by Mr. Bemba from the court’s detention center. Judges cited witness interference and Mr. Bemba access to financial and material support as reasons for the accused’s continued detention.

The trial judges reported that “several incidents” had been reported since July 2011 in which threats had allegedly been made against prosecution witnesses and their families as a result of their testimony in court. They said, “The chamber notes with concern that the threats against witnesses appear to have surged at precisely the moment when the prosecution’s case has shifted from so-called crime-based witnesses to witnesses whose testimony relates directly to the question of the accused’s criminal responsibility, which has the potential to be outcome determinative in this case.”

Mr. Bemba is appealing this decision.

Meanwhile, this afternoon the prosecution questioned Mr. Ossibouyen and he detailed atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the MLC. According to him, the MLC often fired shots to threaten and intimidate people. In one incident on the ferry Mr. Ossibouyen operated, the MLC soldiers who had been brutalizing about 40 Central African women shot one of them.

“There was no shortage of shooting. There was too much gunfire intimidating everyone. It was among the shots fired that a woman was hit by a bullet,” said ‘Mr. Ossibouyen. He said the woman’s body fell overboard and emerged on the water surface three days later.

The witness also stated that his aunt and grandmother were the victims of stray bullets fired by the MLC.

“She [grandmother] was at home in the fourth district, on her veranda and a stray bullet hit her. That is how she died,” stated Mr. Ossibouyen.

During 2002 and 2003, the MLC, Mr. Bemba’s personal militia, were in the CAR to assist the country’s then president Ange-Félix Patassé to fight off an uprising against his regime. Prosecutors at the ICC charge that the MLC indiscriminately murdered, raped, and looted against the country’s civilian population with the knowledge and inaction of their commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba. He has pleaded not guilty.

The defense begins its cross-examination of Mr. Ossibouyen tomorrow morning.