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Bemba Expects to Begin His Defense in August

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s lawyers today told International Criminal Court (ICC) judges that his defense case would last longer than one year and gave August of this year as the likely date when the first defense witness would testify.

Speaking at a status conference, defense lawyer Peter Haynes said that they expected to call about the same number of witnesses as those called by prosecutors. Over the course of 16 months following the opening of the trial in November 2010, prosecutors called 40 witnesses. Four of them testified between January and March of this year.

Mr. Haynes stated that unlike the prosecution witnesses, the defense would call witnesses with “tangible knowledge” of the five-month long operations of Mr. Bemba’s soldiers who took part in the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).

“They will take rather longer [giving testimony] than the prosecution’s whose knowledge of the events was second-hand and partial,” said Mr. Haynes. “We are looking at a period in excess of a year, probably as long as two years.”

Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) and two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) arising from his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops’ alleged brutal behavior against the Central African civilian population.

Mr. Bemba’s troops were among the armed forces active in an armed struggle between the conflict country’s former president, Ange-Félix Patassé, and current president François Bozizé between October 2002 and March 2003. Mr. Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all five charges against him.

Over the coming months, the defense is expected to liaise with the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) to arrange for the testimony of the defense witnesses. Mr. Haynes said a more detailed brief on the defense case would be availed before the beginning of the court’s summer recess in July 2012.

Meanwhile, legal representatives of victims also today gave observations on the modalities for selected victims to present evidence. On February 22, the trial judges permitted two out of the more than 2,000 victims participating in the trial to give oral testimony in court. Judges granted three other victims the right to express their views through a means yet to be determined.

This morning, victims’ lawyers Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson and Assingambi Zarambaud  stated that asking the three other victims to express their views and concerns in writing “would be overkill.” This is because these victims are illiterate and had already given oral statements three times in Sango, a Central African language, which were transcribed into written statements submitted to the court.

“The least could be to have them testify via video link so as not to impose a further writing exercise on them, since they are not allowed to physically attend the court,” argued Mr. Zarambaud.

Ms. Douzima-Lawson supplemented that allowing these victims to express their views to the court remotely would allow the chamber to observe their physical manner and demeanor, which would be important in establishing their credibility.

“We do not believe that this will slow down the trial,” she added.

The prosecution and the defense made no objections to the legal representatives’ request.

Judges last month directed that the two victims who would give oral testimony should appear in court as of April 23, 2012. A court official said today that the VWU and the court’s field operations unit were working to accelerate the passport application and visa acquisition process to enable the victims to appear by the set date.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said the chamber would decide on the date of the commencement of the two victims’ testimony after receiving concrete information from the VWU about their travel arrangements. Regarding the mode of receiving the testimony of the other three victims, Judge Steiner stated that the chamber’s decision would be communicated in due course.

The court is due to go on its spring judicial recess from April 5-16, 2012.