The prosecution in the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba today called its 39th witness, who judges permitted to give all evidence in closed session.
At the start of proceedings this morning, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner announced that “the whole testimony of Witness 15 will take place in closed session” in accordance with an earlier decision issued by the chamber. She did not elaborate.
‘Witness 15’ is a former insider of Mr. Bemba’s private militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Most witnesses in the trial have testified with protective measures, including image and voice distortion, the use of pseudonyms, and frequent use of private session. These measures are intended to protect witnesses against possible reprisal attacks if the public knew their identities.
Some insider witnesses, in particular ‘Witness 75,’ ‘Witness 63,’ ‘Witness 169,’ ‘Witness 32,’ and ‘Witness 44’ have testified against their former leader entirely in closed session.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that Mr. Bemba “effectively acted as a military commander” and “had effective authority and control” over his troops who they say raped, murdered, and pillaged against civilians during their deployment in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Prosecutors claim that although the accused knew his troops were committing these crimes, he did not take “all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.” Mr. Bemba is thus being held criminally responsible, as military commander, for three war crimes and two crimes against humanity. His fighters were in the conflict country during 2002 and 2003 to help its then embattled president, Ange-Félix Patassé, beat off a coup attempt.
In denying the charges against him, Mr. Bemba counters that once his troops left the Democratic Republic of Congo, he had no effective control over them and that they fell under the direct command of Central African authorities. Furthermore, the accused contends that besides his fighters, other forces active in the conflict could have perpetrated the crimes over which he is on trial.
During the conflict, the Community of Saharan-Sahel State (CEN-SAD) troops fought in support of Patassé loyalists, while Chadian nationals fought alongside rebel leader François Bozizé. Libya also sent in some troops and gunships in support of Mr. Patassé. Moreover, there were several local ethnic militias and army units active in the conflict.
Previous insider witnesses have provided evidence on the MLC’s operations, command structures, and the group’s code of conduct.
This week, another former insider in Mr. Bemba’s group who goes by the pseudonym ‘Witness 44’ gave all his testimony in closed session.
The trial continues to hear the testimony of ‘Witness 15’ testimony tomorrow morning.