The trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC) resumed this morning with the testimony of the 37th prosecution witness, a former insider in the accused’s militia who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness 45.’
The witness said whilst the militia had a code governing the conduct of its troops, the regulations were “very difficult” to implement due to the “detachment” between soldiers at the battlefront and their high command headquarters.
He stated that the code of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) had sanctions, such as dismissal and imprisonment, for soldiers who committed murder, rape, or who were found guilty of insubordination and desertion. However, he said, as the group’s military and combat operations spread geographically, the high command became “laissez-faire” about implementing the code.
“Do you know if Mr. Bemba was aware of the MLC’s behavior in these various operations?” asked prosecution lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye.
“Mr. Bemba focused his attention more on the results that were sought to be obtained on the ground rather than anything else,” replied ‘Witness 45,’ who added that this was the case for operations in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR). “The main purpose [of operations] was conquest rather than looking into matters of discipline.”
The witness testified with protective measures including image and voice distortion as well as frequent use of private session.
‘Witness 45’ stated that whereas soldiers were often sanctioned for crimes committed in Congo, it was only when “international pressure was exerted” that a tribunal was set up to try low ranking officers for offences allegedly committed in the CAR. The witness did not give details of these tribunals in open court.
At the start of the trial in November 2010, prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur said in her opening statement that ‘Witness 45’ would provide evidence on the MLC’s military tribunals for undisciplined soldiers. “He will tell the court that the trials were a sham,” said Ms. Kneur. “You will hear from Witness 45 that Bemba informed MLC soldiers prior to the commencement of the trials that it was a show trial designated to satisfy the demands of the international community.”
The witness stated that Mr. Bemba in his capacity as commander-in-chief was “always” in direct contact with his troops and that the accused communicated with commanders via radio, Thuraya satellite phone, and mobile phone.
“Bemba used the telephone extensively,” said the witness. He added that each morning, Mr. Bemba would contact officers at the battlefront to get their reports and to issue instructions.
“The day would start with a report from all the deployed troops. Afterwards, he would take care of other business,” recalled the witness.
While acknowledging the presence of his troops on Central African territory, Mr. Bemba denies the three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) and two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) he faces. His defense argues that once his troops left Congo, he did not have direct command over them as they then fell under the direction of Central African authorities.
Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba, as commander-in-chief of the MLC, is criminally responsible for the crimes committed by his ill-trained and undisciplined troops deployed in the CAR between October 2002 and March 2003. They claim that Mr. Bemba was aware of the brutalities his troops were committing against civilians but he did nothing to stop or punish them. The Congolese troops were in the neighboring country to help its then embattled president, Ange-Félix Patassé, fight off a coup attempt.
‘Witness 45’ continues his testimony tomorrow morning.