With the completion yesterday of testimony by the last prosecution witness in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, International Criminal Court (ICC) judges have called a status conference to schedule the hearing of evidence from selected victims participating in the trial and the start of the defense case.
Yesterday, ‘Witness 36’ completed his testimony, exactly 16 months after the opening of the trial of Mr. Bemba, a Congolese opposition leader charged with three war crimes and two crimes against humanity. Prosecutors called 40 witnesses to provide evidence on the murder, rape, and pillaging allegedly committed by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the accused’s private militia, during their deployment in the 2002–2003 Central African armed conflict.
‘Witness 36,’ a former insider in the group, testified via video link from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo as his health condition hindered him travelling to the court. All of his week-long testimony was heard in closed session. According to prosecutors, the testimony by this witness related to the MLC’s operations during their involvement in the conflict. Furthermore, the witness was expected to provide evidence on the alleged liability of the accused.
Today, trial judges issued an order convening a status conference at 9:30AM on Tuesday, March 27, “in order to address issues related to the presentation of evidence by the legal representatives of victims and the defense.”
Judges Sylvia Steiner, Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki stated that the status conference shall be attended by the prosecution, the defense, legal representatives of victims, as well as a representative of the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU). The status conference will be held in public session.
Last month, judges authorized five victims to provide evidence in the trial. Two of the victims shall provide oral testimony in court, while three will express their views in person, through means yet to be determined by judges.
At the time of the ruling, the VWU stated that due to recent immigration procedures in the Central African Republic, up to two months were required to make arrangements for the victims who will testify in person to travel to The Hague. Judges then directed that the victims should appear in court as of April 23, 2012.
Mr. Bemba has denied all charges against him, stating that he maintained no direct control over his troops stationed in the conflict country. He asserts that the troops fell under the command of former Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé, who invited them into the country to assist his loyalist forces fight off a rebellion. Mr. Patassé passed away in April 2011. His death came before the prosecutors had closed investigations into those who could be tried over crimes related to the conflict.