A retired Central African colonel today told the war crimes trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba that troops belonging to the accused’s militia forcefully occupied and destroyed civilians’ houses, as well as a building belonging to the Central African Republic (CAR) army.
“Everywhere they went, they caused damage,” stated Joseph Mowondwi, who was testifying for the second day. He said, however, that he did not witness the alleged crimes.
Mr. Mowondwi, who is also known as ‘Witness 151’ in court, stated that the government building destroyed by the Congolese soldiers was the Battalion of Support Services (BSS). Prior to its occupation by the accused’s fighters, this building was used to store the Central African military band’s musical instruments.
“The Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] took over that building and they destroyed it. They destroyed all the musical instruments, including the premises,” said the witness who was being questioned by prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson.
He said civilian homes occupied by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops were turned into military bases. Mr. Bemba’s rebel militia was one of the armed groups that were active in the CAR during the 2002 and 2003 armed conflict, fighting on the side of the country’s then embattled president Ange-Félix Patassé.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that MLC soldiers committed rapes, murder, and plunder against the Central African civilian population during their stay in that country. Mr. Bemba is being held accountable for these crimes. In denying the charges against him, he has claimed that any of the numerous armed groups present in the CAR at the time of the conflict could have committed those crimes.
Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson, a lawyer representing victims participating in the trial, asked Mr. Mowondwi whether Libyan forces who took part in the conflict committed any crimes.
“I have no knowledge of any abuses committed by the Libyan troops at the time. Personally, I never heard nor did I see any abuse committed by the Libyan forces,” replied the witness.
Meanwhile, this afternoon, during the defense’s cross-examination, excerpts of Mr. Mowondwi’s statements to ICC prosecution investigators were read out in court. In the statements, he is quoted as stating that he was never a victim nor did he witness any crimes committed by Congolese troops. He said he simply heard rumors from the population.
Can you confirm that you heard rumors about crimes committed by the MLC but are unable to talk about them because you do not know anything about them?” asked defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba.
“That is right,” replied the witness.
The defense counsel then asked the witness who made the BSS premises available to the MLC soldiers.
“I do not know who made the building available,” answered Mr. Mowondwi. He explained that the building where the BSS was housed belonged to the ministry of defense, which also managed it. The witness did not say whether the ministry handed over the building to Mr. Bemba’s soldiers or they occupied it forcefully.
The defense continues to cross-examine Mr. Mowondwi tomorrow morning.