The handful of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s soldiers sentenced to serve time over misconduct on the battlefront were freed the moment independent observers of their trials left, according to testimony heard today from a former insider in the military group.
The unnamed witness, who commenced his testimony yesterday, said only five or seven Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers were sentenced to jail terms at trials he said were stage-managed by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Mr. Bemba, the founder and commander-in-chief of the group, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his alleged failure to punish his soldiers who prosecutors claim murdered, raped, and pillaged during their deployment in a conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).
‘Witness 45,’ whose testimony suggests he was a senior figure in the MLC, described trials of soldiers accused of transgressions both at home in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the CAR. He said sentences handed down by the court martial were never served to the full, with guilty soldiers released from detention a few months after their conviction.
“They stayed in [jail] for a short while. After two or three months, they were released,” he said. One soldier had been sentenced to five years over crimes committed in Congo; those found guilty over crimes committed in the neighboring country had been sentenced to terms of three to six months.
Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye, ‘Witness 45’ said the military tribunals took place between January and February 2003. The witness gave most of his testimony in closed session, with his voice and image distorted from the public in order to protect his identity.
“The objective of the trials was to demonstrate to the international community that the military leadership of the MLC was not responsible for the acts of violence supposedly committed by the MLC troops,” he said.
‘Witness 45’ recalled that journalists from international media were present throughout the proceedings and it was after they left that convicted soldiers were released: “There was no longer any reason to maintain those soldiers in detention.”
The former MLC insider said no victims were present at the trials. He stated that the presiding judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers were all appointed by Mr. Bemba.
The witness did not recall the number of soldiers brought before the tribunal. He estimated that those tried in relation to crimes committed in the CAR were between five and seven.
He said they were charged with extortion and exploitation of the population. “No reference was made to rape or murder,” he said, adding that besides these trials, no other measures were taken in relation to other crimes allegedly committed by the troops.
‘Witness 45’ said soldiers prematurely released from detention were subsequently integrated into the Congolese national army.
The witness was also questioned by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson and Assingambi Zarambaud, who represent victims participating in the trial. The questioning was mainly conducted in closed session.
The defense, which started its cross-examination of ‘Witness 45’ in closed session this afternoon, continues tomorrow morning.