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Witness Says Bemba Disregarded Advice to Try Unruly Soldiers

The trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC) resumed this week following a break of more than a month. The two witnesses who testified both were supposedly members of his group and provided testimony that indicated that the accused was aware of the crimes his soldiers were committing but remained reluctant to discipline them.

Both witnesses testified with the use of protective measures, such voice and image distortion. These measures were meant to keep their identities secret lest they were subjected to reprisal attacks because of their testimony. Indeed, ‘Witness 44,’ who commenced his testimony Friday, will give all his evidence in closed session as judges and other court officials would like to rule out any possibility of the identity of this witness becoming known on the basis of the evidence he is providing.

As such, the only evidence heard by the public was that of ‘Witness 45,’ who also gave most of his evidence in closed session. In fact, the cross-examination of this witness by the defense was conducted entirely in closed session.

When he testified in open session, ‘Witness 45’ recounted how he advised Mr. Bemba to take his soldiers to trial when they were accused of brutalizing civilians. Although the witness did not disclose his relationship with the former Congolese rebel leader, he stated that he advised Mr. Bemba to take action against soldiers accused of perpetuating rapes, murders, and pillaging against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Defense lawyer Peter Haynes presented to court a letter from Mr. Bemba, addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in which he expressed disapproval of the Congolese soldiers’ alleged violations of human rights in Bangui. In the letter, Mr. Bemba mentioned the arrest of eight soldiers whose behavior had been found contradictory to the MLC’s military code of conduct. The letter was signed, stamped, and dated January 4, 2003. Nothing more was said about this letter in open court.

Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for allegedly failing to discipline his soldiers who brutalized Central African civilians during that country’s 2002-2003 armed conflict. He has denied the three war crimes and two crimes against humanity with which he is charged.

The witness said the handful of Mr. Bemba’s soldiers sentenced to serve time over misconduct on the battlefront were freed the moment independent observers of their trials left. He said only five or seven MLC soldiers were sentenced to jail terms at trials that were stage-managed by Mr. Bemba.

The witness 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 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 said while 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 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 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 Congo and the CAR. “The main purpose [of operations] was conquest rather than looking into matters of discipline.”

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 trial continues on Monday with the testimony of ‘Witness 44.’