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Last Prosecution Witness in Bemba Trial to Testify Wednesday

The last of 40 witnesses for International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors in the trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba will commence his testimony on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.

The unnamed witness, who will testify via video link from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), had been scheduled to start giving evidence today. However, due to unknown reasons, he will now begin on Wednesday.

Earlier this month trial judges granted a request by prosecutors to hear the evidence of ‘Witness 36’ via video link. In their application, prosecutors stated that testimony via video link “would prevent the inevitable pain and suffering [the witness] would endure by traveling to The Hague” due to his medical condition.

Whereas no details were given of the medical condition of the witness, judges ruled that the reasons given by the prosecution preventing him from giving in-court testimony were “well founded.” The defense acknowledged that injuries this witness suffered last July rendered it acceptable for him to give testimony without traveling to The Hague.

Judges agreed with the defense that prosecutors did not submit supporting material about the health status of the witness, but they saw “no compelling reason for doubting the prosecution’s submission that Witness 36 is effectively not in a position to travel and come to testify to The Hague at the moment.”

‘Witness 36’ has been described by prosecutors as a former insider in the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia. They have described him as “an important percipient witness” whose unavailability would deny the prosecution its right to a fair opportunity to present its case and would also deprive the chamber of evidence essential for determining the truth.

Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba, as commander-in-chief of the group, is criminally responsible for the murder, rape, and pillaging allegedly committed by his troops who were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. The Congolese soldiers were in the neighboring country at the request of then president Ange-Félix Patassé, who needed assistance to fight off a coup attempt.

Mr. Bemba has denied all charges against him. He has claimed that not only could any of the numerous armed groups who operated in that country at the time have committed the crimes, but also that once his soldiers left Congo, they were no longer under his control but that of Mr. Patassé.

The trial started on November 22, 2010, and so far has heard from 39 prosecution witnesses. It is expected that about seven of the more than 2,000 victims participating in the trial will be permitted to give oral testimony before the defense case opens.