The last overview witness to testify in the Bemba trial this week described various crimes which he said the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers committed in his neighborhood. He told the trial how the soldiers killed his sister, raped his wife, and sodomized him.
Testifying anonymously, the witness also stated that although residents of a local town in the Central African Republic (CAR) pleaded with Jean-Pierre Bemba to rein in his undisciplined soldiers, the atrocities did not stop after the accused addressed his fighters.
‘Witness 69’ testified with his voice and image distorted from the public and gave most of his evidence in closed session. In addition, following an assessment from the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), he testified with the help of an in-court support assistant.
Until two weeks ago, prosecutors had intended to call ‘Witness 69’ as their last witness to provide an overview of the crimes committed by the accused’s troops. However, due to the unavailability of insider witnesses earlier lined up to testify before the Christmas break, judges directed prosecutors to call this witness this week.
When he took the stand on Monday, ‘Witness 69’ said his sister was shot dead by two MLC fighters. “She was killed like an animal, like a dog,” he said. He said armed soldiers from the accused’s group, who were dressed in military uniform and spoke Lingala, a language native to the Congo, attacked his sister “with the view of taking money off her” on November 9, 2002.
The witness also recounted how six soldiers attacked him and his wife at their home. “They grabbed me and took me to one of the bedrooms…they ordered me to lie down. One of them came and sodomized me,” the witness stated. “Bemba’s men humiliated me.”
He added that on the same day, Mr. Bemba’s fighters raped his wife, “It was only after two weeks that she could stand up on her own.”
The witness continued, ‘My family is completely destroyed. My wife, my children, we were subjected to this. Up until now, I still suffer from the consequences of these crimes, and I have given all of this into the hands of God.”
Prosecutors charge that up to 1,500 soldiers commanded by Mr. Bemba raped, murdered, and pillaged civilians in the neighboring CAR during that country’s conflict in 2002 and 2003.
The prosecution contends that Mr. Bemba knew that his troops were committing crimes but he did not take “all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.” Mr. Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all five charges he is charged with.
The witness said “no object of value was spared” by rampaging MLC soldiers. They looted furniture, kitchen utensils, and other household goods such as radio and television sets. “Even bags used by women to go to the market were seized,” he added.
He said Mr. Bemba’s fighters pillaged numerous localities including Boali, Sibut, and Bossembélé. All looted items were transported to the Ouibangui riverbank and then across the river into neighboring Congo by canoes.
The witness also said the MLC hunted domestic animals such as chicken, cattle, and sheep for their consumption. “No animal was spared – even dogs. They killed the dogs and ate the dog meat. This was one of their preferred dishes,” said the witness.
According to him, crimes committed by the soldiers got worse after they held a meeting with residents of the Central African town they occupied. Even after a subsequent visit from their commander-in-chief, the Congolese soldiers continued to terrorize civilians.
The witness said a meeting was convened at his local town hall a few days after the arrival of the troops in Begua town. The meeting was attended by the town’s residents and the Congolese troops.
Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Thomas Bifwoli, he testified that during the meeting, an unnamed commander said the MLC had “come to work hand in hand” with the locals. However, when a resident castigated the MLC’s brutal behavior, the commander got irritated and left immediately. As a result, “no agreement” was reached and the abuses persisted.
“They continued to loot and ransack houses…looking for well-built houses so that they could install their offices and organize themselves in these well-built houses,” he said.
‘Witness 69’ testified that Mr. Bemba once visited his troops stationed at Begua. He said that after the visit, the soldiers continued to commit crimes. “If he had said during his visit that they should not continue to commit these violent acts and abuses, they would have stopped,” asserted the witness.
However, defense lawyers highlighted inconsistencies between the testimony of the witness and the statements of his spouse. They questioned him about the differences between the events surrounding his reported abuse at the hands of soldiers belonging to the accused’s militia, as he described them to prosecution investigators, and how he retold them in court.
In court, the witness had testified that as he was being assaulted, he sustained a bullet wound to his ankle and that as a result of being kicked and stomped by a soldier, he suffered a permanent vision impairment.
However, in a statement the defense read out in court, the wife of the witness was quoted as saying that her husband and children fled their home at 4:00pm on the day the Congolese soldiers arrived. She asserted that five armed soldiers raped her, while others looted “various possessions” from the home. She said the soldiers later freed her but continued to occupy her home for five months.
The wife of the witness also made no mention of her husband’s sodomizing or the murder of his sister – two incidents that were at the center of his testimony. ‘Witness 69’ responded that his wife “had her own story to tell” and that he had his own. “My wife is just as illiterate as I am,” he added.
Furthermore, in a 2008 statement made to prosecution investigators, the witness was quoted as saying that he was shot in the ankle by Congolese soldiers, that he fell on stones and his left eye got hit. However, in this statement, the witness did not mention his alleged sodomizing.
Asked by defense lawyer Peter Haynes why he did not mention to prosecution investigators that he was sodomized and kicked in the eye, as opposed to falling on stones, the witness attributed the inconsistency to transcription errors in his oral testimony.
“The person who made up that document got it wrong. People make mistakes,” he said.
The trial continues next Tuesday.