The 32nd witness called by International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors transported war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba from Congolese territory the accused controlled to the Central African capital Bangui.
Cyprian Francis Osibien, a technician previously employed by the state-run firm that managed river transport in the Central African Republic (CAR), said he transported the accused and some of his fighters by ferry from Zongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo across the Oubangui River to Bangui.
Also known as ‘Witness 47,’ he told the trial chamber that he first met Mr. Bemba’s soldiers in October 2002. His technical director, accompanied by several members of the Central African Presidential Guard, fetched him from his home to go and repair a ferry.
The witness stated that after repairing the vessel, his boss placed him under the command of a Central African colonel. His task was to ensure that ferries run smoothly across the river. Once he crossed the river and docked in Zongo, trucks brought Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers who then boarded the ferry. Mr. Osibien recalled that the soldiers were “happy and singing” and chanted that they were going to the battlefield “merely one kilometer afield.”
Mr. Osibien estimated that on this initial occasion, he transported 150 to 200 Congolese soldiers for the 20 minute river crossing.
“How many similar crossings did you make with the Banyamulenge?” asked prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson, using the term Central African citizens used to refer to Mr. Bemba’s fighters.
“I made this trip on 19 occasions. Each day, I did return trips,” replied the witness. He added that sometimes he carried wounded and dead soldiers. Other times he ferried ammunition.
Mr. Iverson then presented photographs depicting soldiers loading ammunition cases onto a ferry and asked the witness if he recognized the pictures.
“These are the militia who did a disservice in the CAR. This picture was taken in Zongo by myself,” the witness answered.
Mr. Bemba’s MLC troops were one of the armed groups involved in the 2002–2003 conflict that pitied then Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé against his erstwhile army commander François Bozize.
Prosecutors allege that widespread looting, murder, and rape of civilians marked the Congolese troops’ progression in that country, and that as their commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba is responsible for failing to rein in his soldiers. He has pleaded not guilty, arguing that once his troops left Congolese territory, he no longer had control over them.
Mr. Osibien testified that between the seventh and ninth day of his river crossings with the MLC, he transported Mr. Bemba. The accused, he said, had a security detail of about 30 men including Libyan nationals, who arrived at Zongo by helicopter and boarded the ferry to Bangui.
According to the witness, Mr. Bemba and his security entourage stayed in Bangui for two hours and were then ferried back to the DRC by Mr. Osibien.
The trial continues tomorrow morning with further testimony from Mr. Osibien.