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Defense Insists Patassé Commanded Bemba’s Troops

The defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba on Friday questioned a military expert about the testimonies of witnesses who stated that the command of the former Congolese vice president’s militia during their participation in the 2002-2003 Central African armed conflict fell under then president Ange-Félix Patassé. The statements were made by two colonels of the Central African Republic (CAR) armed forces, Thierry Lengbe and Joseph Mokondoui, as well as two witnesses going by the pseudonyms ‘Oscar’ and ‘Mathew.’

General Daniel Opande, who concluded his testimony today, was called by prosecutors to give evidence about military command structures and command responsibility. The retired Kenyan army officer and former commander of various United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa has written an expert report in which he concludes that Mr. Bemba was the supreme commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers involved in the armed campaign, and that he had “assured means” of issuing direct commands to his troops stationed in the conflict country.

In October 2002, Mr. Patassé called upon the support of Mr. Bemba’s private army to help him stave off a coup attempt. Prosecutors charge that once deployed in the neighboring country, widespread murder, looting, and rape against the civilian population marked the Congolese soldiers’ progression. As their commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba is being tried at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) with failure to control or punish his errant soldiers.

According to excerpts from the statements by ‘Mathew’ and ‘Oscar,’ the Congolese troops received orders directly from Mr. Patassé via his defense minister. Colonel Lengbe and Colonel Mokondoui were quoted as stating that loyalist Central African armed forces’ manoeuvres and strategy, as well as that of the MLC, were coordinated at the Center for Command Operations (CCOP). At the time, they said, this center was located at Camp Beyale in the capital Bangui and was under the command of the country’s army chief of staff, André Mazzi.

Asked by defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba whether, had he been aware of this information, it would have had an impact on his report, General Opande replied, “It would have had an impact on my report provided that the information was the practice.”

Yesterday, Mr. Kilolo-Musamba questioned General Opande about the statements of ‘Marcel’ and ‘Leonard,’ two other witnesses who testified that the Congolese soldiers fell under the command of Central African authorities. Whereas ‘Oscar’, ‘Mathew,’ and the two Central African colonels’ statements were not part of those that informed the expert’s report to the ICC, those by ‘Marcel’ and ‘Leonard’ were among them. Colonel Mokondoui and Colonel Lengbe have testified in the trial over the last two months.

In denying the charges against him, Mr. Bemba argues that once his troops left Congo, they fell under the direct command of Mr. Patassé and that it was him that should have been held accountable for their alleged crimes. Mr. Patassé passed away in April this year before prosecutors concluded their investigations into the Central African conflict.

The conclusion of General Opande’s evidence brings to 36 the number of prosecution witnesses who have testified in the trial since its opening in November 2010. Four more prosecution witnesses will testify in 2012.

Next week, the court will break for the winter recess with hearings in the trial scheduled to resume on Monday, January 16, 2012.