A witness who prosecutors say lived with Jean-Pierre Bemba this week provided evidence which seems to show that the war crimes accused had effective control over his soldiers deployed in the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The accused, who has been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since last November, claims he never had control over his troops while they were in the neighboring country, and that he should therefore not be held responsible for allegedly failing to stop the soldiers from committing rapes, murders and lootings.
‘Witness 213’ testified that Mr. Bemba had a satellite phone at his residence that he used to communicate orders to his commanders. He said the rebel leader also had a communication center a few meters from his residence from which operators received daily reports via radio about operations in the CAR during 2002 and 2003.
According to the witness, the accused received reports from his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) commanders in the neighboring country via Thuraya satellite phone and radio. He said Colonel Mustafa Mukiza, who commanded the troops involved in the Central African campaign, “submitted reports” over these channels to Mr. Bemba.
In response to one report, the witness said he overheard Mr. Bemba instruct Colonel Mukiza to kill someone. “It had to do with a person that was arrested. I don’t know if it was a civilian or a soldier,” said the witness. He recalled hearing the accused state, “I do not need this person,” and then ordering the execution. The prosecution’s subsequent questioning on this matter was closed to the public.
‘Witness 213’ also stated that there were other occasions during which he heard the accused issue orders related to the Central African operations. “Sometimes they were orders to progress or maintain positions,” he said, and added that “all orders were carried out” in order to avoid reprisals.
‘Witness 213’ also testified that MLC brigades and battalions stationed in the conflict country were equipped with radio handsets through which they sent and received reports between the frontline and Congo. He said Mr. Bemba had “his own radio” at his residence as well as another located at the militia’s operations office “10 meters” from his residence.
Furthermore, the witness testified that the accused used the radio in his home “often” and only when it failed did he use the one at the operations office. According to the witness, the operations office is “where all information was brought together from the troops in the field” and complied into reports for Mr. Bemba.
“How and in what form did the operators write the reports?” asked prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga.
The witness replied, “In a copy book before submitting it to the president.” He continued that when the MLC fighters withdrew from the CAR, the operations copybooks and transmission registers were gathered and taken to Mr. Bemba’s residence.
The witness also said Libyan planes delivered ammunition from Tripoli to Gbadolite, the Congolese town where Mr. Bemba’s rebel force had its headquarters. The carriers were Migs [a type of Russian fighter aircraft].
He said the aircraft “were mounted in Gbadolite and from there, they took off to the CAR”. From the Central African capital Bangui, the Migs returned to Tripoli.
“Do you mean they were used in bombing raids?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
“Yes,” replied the witness. “When we went to Bangui, Bemba asked Mustafa whether they had the support of the Migs and Mustafa said yes, they were using Migs to bomb.”
The witness also described incidents where the accused met with his fighters at Point Kilomètre 12, or PK12, near Bangui, as well as at Point Kilomètre (22), Bossembele and Mongoumba.
“He spoke to the soldiers who were by the road leading to Cameroon. He congratulated them for the work they had carried out. He boosted their morale and expressed his support for them,” said ‘Witness 213,’ who testified with his face and voice distorted from the public in order to protect his identity. He recalled that the accused told his troops that he continued to monitor them from his Congolese base, and that “he never abandoned his soldiers.”
The places where the witness said the accused addressed his soldiers are some of the areas where prosecutors claim Mr. Bemba’s militia carried out rapes, murders and pillaging.
The witness said there were several civilian corpses along the roads that Jean-Pierre Bemba took to visit his troops involved in the conflict. However, he said the war-crimes accused did not speak about the corpses, or the need for discipline, when he addressed his troops.
“Did Mr. Bemba make any comments that concerned the presence of these bodies along the road?” asked Mr. Badibanga.
“I did not hear him mention these bodies,” replied the witness. He reiterated that Mr. Bemba only encouraged his troops and thanked them for the work they were doing.
The witness could not give an estimate of the number of dead bodies he saw. He said though that the bodies were for men and women. They wore civilian clothing and there were no weapons besides them.
The witness also testified that goods looted by Mr. Bemba’s troops and transported to Congo were “at the disposal” of different units within the accused’s MLC political party.
“Before they went to the CAR, they did not have these goods. When they returned, they had these goods,” said the witness. The goods included vehicles and motorbikes, he said.
Mr. Bemba has denied that he had effective command and control over his troops once they crossed the Congolese border, arguing that they then fell under the command of Central African authorities. His fighters were in that country to assist its then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to fight off an armed rebellion.
At the time the troops went to the neighboring country, they were a rebel group fighting to topple the Congolese government. Under a 2003 peace deal, Mr. Bemba became one of the Congolese vice presidents.
The defense will continue cross-examining ‘Witness 213’ on Monday morning.