On Friday, war crimes victim Judes Mbetingou described to trial judges a visit by Jean-Pierre Bemba to the town of Sibut in the Central African Republic (CAR) at the time the Congolese opposition leader’s troops were allegedly brutalizing civilians in the area.
The victim, who was testifying for the second day, said the visit took place in March 2003. He said the accused arrived by helicopter at a football field in Sibut near a hospital on the road to Begua town.
“When he arrived he first went to the [military] base then the market. He walked slowly whilst waving to the people,” recalled the victim. “Thereafter he went to the market to purchase pancakes. The woman wanted to give him change but he refused it.”
Whereas residents tried to get close to where Mr. Bemba was, they were stopped by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops that were in control of the town at the time. Mr. Mbetingou did not state whether he knew the purpose of the visit, or whether there were any meetings between the visiting militia leader and residents of the besieged town.
International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers brutalized civilians in Sibut and other towns in the CAR during 2002 and 2003. At the time, the Congolese soldiers were among the armed forces active in the neighboring country’s armed conflict. Although Mr. Bemba was not personally in the conflict country, as commander-in-chief of the group he is being tried for failing to rein in his troops who allegedly committed the rapes, killings and pillaging. He has denied the charges.
Prosecutors contend that Mr. Bemba was aware of the crimes his soldiers were committing because he maintained regular communication with his commanders on the frontline. They also charge that he made visits to the conflict country during which residents informed him of the crimes his troops were committing.
Meanwhile today, Mr. Mbetingou told the trial that some husbands in Sibut were “punished” by the MLC fighters after their wives reported them to the Congolese troops.
“Women would go and complain to the Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] about their husbands so that they would be beaten up,” he said.
As a result of the “bad lashing” meted out to the husbands, the women got “frightened” and stopped making complaints to the MLC. He said he was aware of three cases of husbands being lashed.
Asked by victims’ lawyer Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson whether witnessing such acts made him afraid, he replied in the affirmative: “How could I not be afraid? How can one not be afraid of cannibals?”
Mr. Mbetingou is the second victim to testify in the Bemba trial. He has recounted widespread looting and rape by the MLC upon their arrival in Sibut on February 24, 2003. He stated that in some cases, looted goods were sold back to the owners. He also said the Congolese troops drunk a lot of alcohol, smoked cannabis, and were “accountable to no one.”
When the MLC ended their two-week occupation of Sibut, the town was occupied by the country’s armed forces known as the Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA). He said before the arrival of Mr. Bemba’s troops and after their departure, his town suffered no atrocities.
The trial, which started in November 2010, is being heard by Judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki.
Mr. Mbetingou’s testimony continues next Monday morning.