Cyprien-Francis Ossibouyen, the 32nd witness who testified in the Bemba trial, this week recounted the gang-rape of Central African women by members of the accused’s militia. However, the witness subsequently admitted to some inconsistencies in his testimony, which he attributed to exhaustion and translation errors.
The second witness who testified in the trial of the former Congolese vice president this week was Thierry Lengbe, a colonel in the Central African army. He stated that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia only carried out one joint operation with the Central African army.
Most of the week was taken up by the testimony of Mr. Ossibouyen, who testified that 22 armed soldiers belonging to Jean-Pierre Bemba’s militia arrived with eight females at the ferry he used to transport them between the Central African Republic (CAR) and Congo. The Congolese allegedly treated the Central African women “like animals.” Under questioning by prosecutors, the witness said this incident took place “in the afternoon” while the sun was still up.
Mr. Ossibouyen also told the trial that a second incident of gang-rape took place at night on the premises of a Central African naval base. The witness, also known as ‘Witness 47,’ said that he saw a group of between 25 and 30 MLC soldiers rape 12 women.
However, in the statement made to prosecution investigators three years ago, which defense lawyer Peter Haynes read out in court, the witness said the incident involved 50 Congolese militia and 22 women.
“Should we disregard what you said and adopt what is in the statement?” asked the defense lawyer.
“I stand by what I said [in the statement],” replied the witness.
In his previous in-court testimony, these two rape incidents are what Mr. Ossibouyen witnessed in the 19 day period he purportedly ferried Mr. Bemba’s troops across the Oubangui River. However, under cross-examination on Thursday, the witness revised the incidents to three.
“I am confirming the fact that it was three. I did not say 10 or 20,” he said.
When the defense presented the witness with extracts of his statement, he admitted that the first incident of the alleged MLC brutalities took place at a different time of day than he had mentioned earlier.
“I stand by what they [statements] say. If they say they [MLC] arrived at 1900, that is what happened,” he said.
Mr. Ossibouyen testified that he transported Mr. Bemba from Congolese territory the accused controlled to the Central African capital Bangui. Formerly a technician with the state-run firm that managed river transport in the CAR, he said he transported the accused and some of his fighters by ferry from Zongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) across the Oubangui River to Bangui.
Mr. Bemba’s MLC troops were one of the armed groups involved in the 2002–2003 conflict that pitied then CAR 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 accountable 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.
The witness testified that Congolese soldiers ordered him to transport them across the river to Zongo town in the DRC. However, when he informed the soldiers that he did not have the key to start the ferry, the troops forced the women onto the ferry while kicking and hitting them with rifle butts.
“Those women had been terrorized, they had bodily injuries on them,” the witness recalled. “Some of them had no clothes on, they were naked.”
“The militia took off their [women’s] underwear and bras and they opened their zips. As soon as one person would finish, he would get up and another person would come and sleep with that very same woman,” recounted Mr. Ossibouyen.
He continued, “These horrible things took place in the afternoon. The sun was still up. I didn’t need a torch light to see what was going on. That, in fact, is what overwhelmed me.”
On Monday, Mr. Ossibouyen expressed concern over the safety of his family but did not give the details of his concerns in open court. On Wednesday afternoon, the trial stalled when the witness was reportedly unable to continue giving evidence, apparently on account of physical exhaustion.
The defense also questioned Mr. Ossibouyen about photographs he claims to have taken of the accused’s fighters. The photos showed Mr. Bemba’s fighters loading ammunition cases onto a ferry. Whereas the witness said he had discreetly taken these pictures from Zongo, Mr. Haynes suggested that the pictures were from Bangui.
Meanwhile, Colonel Lengbe who established the Center for Command Operations (CCOP) during the conflict told the court that Mr. Bemba’s forces only carried out one joint operation with the CAR army. The colonel also stated that CAR army radio equipment did not work with the MLC communication equipment because “we did not have their frequency.”
The trial continues on Monday.