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Victims Ask to Testify in Bemba Trial After Prosecution Case Closes

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is likely to hear the testimony of some victims of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers’ brutalities once the prosecution case closes.

When the trial resumes on January 18, prosecutors will call their four remaining witnesses, who are expected to complete their testimony during February. Although judges have not yet granted permission to any victims to present in-court testimony, they have indicated that any such testimony would be heard before the opening of the defense case. Up to 1,861 victims are participating in the trial.

Victims’ lawyers last month asked for leave to call 16 victims to testify. However, the defense and prosecutors stated that this number was excessive, and allowing all 16 to testify would unduly prolong the trial and result in the presentation of cumulative evidence.

Judges agreed, noting that hearing the evidence of the 16 victims would require 15 and a half weeks, assuming that there were no delays in the trial schedule. They stated that while it was important for the participation of victims in trial proceedings to be meaningful, such participation must not be prejudicial to or inconsistent with the rights of the accused and a fair and impartial trial. Undue delays resulting from the presentation of cumulative evidence would affect the accused’s right to be tried without undue delay, they said.

Judges asked the legal representatives to draw up a list of not more than eight victims they would like to call to give oral testimony. This list would be submitted by January 23, 2012, then judges would decide on which victims may be called to testify.

Mr. Bemba has been charged with failing to stop or to punish his fighters who allegedly pillaged, raped, and murdered civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. His trial, which started in November 2010, has seen 36 witnesses testify for the prosecution. The four remaining prosecution witnesses are former insiders in Mr. Bemba’s MLC.

Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, one of the victims’ lawyers, explained that the testimony of victims would serve to dispel misunderstandings over certain points, such as the manner in which the crimes were committed, the identity of the perpetrators, and the exact period of the events.

“Some victims will testify to Bemba’s visit to his troops in their localities and the devastation wreaked upon the population by the Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] through their behavior,” said Douzima-Lawson.

She said all the 15 prosecution witnesses with dual status (both victims and witnesses) who have testified in the trial are from around Bangui, the capital of the CAR. The victims who want to testify are from Damara, Sibut, Boali, Bossemgoa, Bozoum, and Mongouma – areas where crimes were committed, but the defense denies the MLC were the perpetrators.

The prosecution agreed that victims from areas outside of Bangui may be able to shed additional light on the case, such as the patterns of the crimes and the consequences of the attacks on the civilian population. “In that sense, their evidence presumably will complement rather than duplicate the evidence presented by the prosecution,” said a filing by the prosecution.

Judges directed that the eight victims to be shortlisted should be those who, in the legal representatives’ view, are:

(i) Best-placed to assist the Chamber in the determination of the truth in this case;

(ii) Able to present evidence and/or views and concerns that affect the personal interests of the greatest number of participating victims;

(iii) Best-placed to present testimony that will not be cumulative of that which has already been presented in this case; and

(iv) Willing for their identity to be disclosed to the parties in the event that they are permitted to testify and/or present their views and concerns.

In addition to the written statements described above, for each victim, the legal representatives shall explain:

(i) The estimated time needed for the presentation of the victim’s testimony and/or views and concerns;

(ii) Whether the victim is willing for his or her identity to be disclosed to the parties in the event that he or she is permitted to testify and/or present views and concerns;

(iii) How the presentation of the victim’s testimony and/or views and concerns would affect the overall interests of the participating victims in this case;

(iv) The relevance of the victim’s testimony to the charges;

(v) How the victim’s testimony would assist in the Chamber’s determination of the truth in this case; and

(vi) The reasons why the victim’s testimony would not be cumulative of evidence that has been presented to date.