A military expert has said Jean-Pierre Bemba did not have the means to control his troops deployed in the armed conflict over which he is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Testifying for the second day, retired French brigadier-general Jacques Seara noted that the accused did not have an operations center in the conflict country to collect intelligence on enemy troops and issue orders. As such, he said, “I really do not see how Bemba could have been informed in what was transpiring in Bangui.”
He continued:”Commanding 1,500 people on the ground from a distance of over 1,000 kilometers in a situation where one is not informed of enemy troops, terrain, ammunition, details of the operations center, cohesion relating to the mission of the other forces, I do not see how it is possible for one to command under such circumstances.”
General Seara is the first witness called in the defense of Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo who is on trial over war crimes and crimes against humanity. The crimes arise from atrocities his fighters allegedly committed when they were deployed in an armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).
During that conflict, Mr. Bemba remained at his headquarters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but prosecutors charge that he maintained effective command of the troops. They further charge that he knew these fighters were committing atrocities, but he did not punish or stop them. He denies the charges.
It is the evidence of the military expert that Mr. Bemba was not the commander of the troops. In fact, the expert dispelled the prosecution’s contention that the accused had direct and regular communication with his fighters on the frontline.
Some prosecution witnesses testified that Mr. Bemba was always in regular and direct contact with his troops and that he communicated with commanders via radio, Thuraya satellite phone, and mobile phone. General Daniel Opande, a military expert called by the prosecution last December, stated that Mr. Bemba had “assured means” to issue direct commands to his troops both at home and in the CAR and to stop them from committing atrocities.
However, General Seara asserted that Mustafa Mukiza, who commander the Congolese troops deployed in the neighboring state, was only able to maintain an administrative link with the group’s headquarters in DRC, regularly reporting on the situation in the conflict country and challenges he faced. He said Colonel Mustafa’s messages, including reports of deaths and injuries, were specifically addressed to the MLC’s chief of staff, General Dieudonné Amuli.
The expert explained that from his analysis of documents and interviews with senior officers from the accused’s militia and the Central African army, it was unlikely that Colonel Mustafa and Mr. Bemba were able to communicate directly. This was because at the time “it was not possible” to use mobile phones at the MLC’s headquarters in the Congo town of Gbadolite, and communications with the commander in the war zone would have required that Mr. Bemba had a telephone number to call him on. And whereas communication may have been possible via satellite phone if both parties owned sets, the communication would not have been secure as it could have been susceptible to interception, including by enemy troops.
“It would not have been possible under the circumstances as we know them for Bemba to command Colonel Mustafa using a Thuraya telephone,” he said. He added that any information that may have been shared between the two would have been “general open information.”
Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness whether it was possible to command a force abroad that was involved in joint operations with other forces. The expert replied that this was not possible. He said that once the MLC was assigned to work with Central African forces, to be fed, equipped, accommodated, and to honor the orders of that country’s authorities, from that point on they were integrated into the national force and could not engage in their own personal war.
“All contingents of a multi-national force are under the same command. They [MLC] engaged in a war defined by the Central African Republic” General Seara asserted.
“Bombayake was given command to organize the CAR and allied forces including the MLC. Bombayake became the boss of Mustafa,” explained the expert. General Ferdinand Bombayake headed the Central African presidential guard, which spearheaded the fight against the insurgents.
Meanwhile, documents presented in court today showed the CAR government authorized provision of military effects, including radio frequency allocations, communications equipment, arms, uniforms, and logistics support, to the Congolese troops.
General Seara said when the accused’s troops arrived in the CAR, they were equipped and dressed “in the same manner” as the Central African armed forces. Uniforms supplied to foreign soldiers were only different from those of local national forces because they lacked berets and ranks insignia.
The expert also testified that Central African authorities offered the foreign soldiers a monetary allowance for buying food from markets in the capital Bangui.
“When you conducted your analysis, were there cases of looting or pillaging owing to a lack of food?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
“No. On the contrary, the witnesses I interviewed in Kinshasa were entirely satisfied with the way they had been fed,” replied General Seara.
The military expert continues his testimony tomorrow morning.