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Lack of Interpreters Stalls Bemba’s ICC Trial

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial, which started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) last November, today stalled due to unavailability of interpreters to translate the testimony of a witness.

Hearings in the trial had been scheduled all this week. However, after the 33rd prosecution witness completed his testimony this morning, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner announced that hearings would resume next Monday subject to confirmation.

Judge Steiner said, “At this point in time, we are not in a position to confirm exactly when we are going to resume and start with the testimony of Witness 213 … it depends on the availability of the Lingala interpreters who at this moment are busy in the Katanga and Ngudjolo trial.”

Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui and Germain Katanga, both Congolese nationals, are jointly charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed while they headed militia groups in the Congolese province of Ituri. Their trial at the ICC commenced in November 2009.

In a ruling last Thursday, judges said the upcoming witness had asked to testify in Lingala, a language widely spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The judges noted then that the court’s “limited “Lingala interpreters would be working on translating the testimony of Mr. Ngudjolo.

At the time, Judge Steiner expressed the chamber’s desire for an expeditious trial and sought the assistance of the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) and the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) in establishing the availability of other prosecution witnesses to testify in the meantime. It now appears that the VWU and the OTP were unable to bring the testimony of these witnesses forward.

Mr. Bemba, also a Congolese national, is standing trial at the ICC for failing to stop or punish his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and March 2003. His fighters were invited by the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to help him fight off a coup attempt.

The witnesses so far heard in Mr. Bemba’s trial have mostly testified in French or Sango, a Central African dialect.

In its opening statement, the prosecution stated that ‘Witness 213,’ a former MLC insider, would testify “that Bemba briefed his MLC forces in Zongo, immediately before their deployment into the CAR.”

According to the statement this witness recorded with prosecution investigators, Mr. Bemba told his troops, “You are going to the CAR. It is not your country. In that country there are no parents or big brothers or sisters. When you get there, what I am asking you to do, anyone you encounter in the combat zones will be an enemy because I have received information that the enemy is wearing civilian clothing.” It was also stated in the prosecution’s opening statement that ‘Witness 213’ personally knew and lived with Mr. Bemba for some years.

Meanwhile, this morning a former assistant to the Central African army chief of staff during Mr. Patassé regime, completed giving evidence. Colonel Thierry Lengbe’s testimony focused on the Center for Command Operations (CCOP), which coordinated military operations during the coup attempt, and the center’s working relationship with the MLC.

During cross-examination, Colonel Lengbe said that Central African authorities supplied the Congolese troops with vehicles to facilitate their transportation. “They had license plates of either the Forces Armées Centrafricaines [FACA] or the presidential guard,” said the colonel.

Furthermore, Colonel Lengbe stated that some individuals within Mr. Bemba’s militia were given mobile phone handsets with which to communicate with the command center.

The trial is expected to resume next Monday, November 14.