A military expert today testified that Jean-Pierre Bemba had the means of exerting direct control over his troops deployed in the Central African conflict.
Daniel Opande, a retired Kenyan military officer, is the fourth expert witness to testify in the trial of the former Congolese opposition leader at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
He stated that his review of documents received from the court’s prosecutors indicated that Mr. Bemba, through wire and radio transmissions, had “assured means” of issuing direct commands to his troops deployed in the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) from his headquarters in Congo. He added that information from the field was communicated to the accused via the same means.
“If you have the means to monitor, the distance doesn’t matter. There are commanders who are thousands of miles away from their troops, but they are still in control of their troops,” said the witness.
General Opande has written a report for the court on military command structures and command responsibility. The report is partly based on material provided by the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP), including witness statements and other literature. It highlights similarities between the accused’s rebel movement and conventional military forces.
Mr. Bemba, the MLC commander-in-chief, is on trial at The Hague-based court over rapes, murders, and pillaging allegedly committed by his soldiers deployed in the Central African conflict during 2002 and 2003. Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba made no efforts to train his troops on the law of war, that he ignored or discounted specific complaints about serious crimes committed by his soldiers, and that he made no efforts to punish them. He has pleaded not guilty to all five charges against him, arguing that he had no control over his troops once they entered the neighboring country.
General Opande has previously commanded United Nations peacekeeping missions in Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, and Sierra Leone. He stated that a military commander has to be “very clear” while speaking to his troops in order for them to perform the right actions and not to leave them “in doubt” of their mission. “You do not want the officers to guess,” he added.
The general, who has interactions with rebel forces seeking to overthrow governments in countries where he has worked, stated that it was “common practice” for these forces, termed “guerrillas” to adopt the structure and chain of command of conventional armed forces.
“To what extent did you find the same features in the information you reviewed regarding the MLC?” asked prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson.
“I found that the MLC had a staff organization which was quite synonymous with any military organization. It was well established, with staff at every level of command and control,” replied the general, also known as ‘Witness 219.’ He said that amongst the MLC staff was a chief of staff, intelligence officer, operations officer, and logistics officer, all of whom kept their commander-in-chief “informed” of what was going on.
At the time of their intervention in the neighboring country, the MLC were a rebel movement seeking to overthrow the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In his report, the general concludes that the overall command of the militia was vested in Mr. Bemba as both the political and supreme military leader.
“Whatever the MLC was doing was done in accordance with his [Bemba’s] instructions,” said the general.
However, the Kenyan general contended that there were certain limitations to his report. According to him, interviews with certain individuals in the CAR and the Congo, as well as site visits to the MLC’s area of operation “were not done.”
In addition to victims and witnesses to alleged crimes, the ICC allows persons whose education, training, and experience qualify them to provide an assessment, opinion, or judgment within an area of expertise in trials at the court, to testify.
The prosecution has previously called three expert witnesses. These are Dr. André Tabo, an expert on sexual violence as a tool of war, Dr. Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith, a psychologist who testified about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Central African rape survivors, and Professor William Samarin, a linguist and anthropologist.
General Opande continues his testimony tomorrow morning.