The first witness to testify in defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba completed giving evidence, with his questioning by two victims’ lawyers being a major highlight this week. Retired French army brigadier-general Jacques Seara, who appeared as a military expert, started his testimony on Tuesday last week. It is his evidence that Mr. Bemba was not in command of his troops who are accused of committing atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. Lawyers representing victims in the trial questioned the methodology used by the expert to compile a report that absolved the accused from command responsibility over his troops. They said the expert did not travel to the CAR, the scene of the armed conflict over which the Congolese opposition leader is on trial. Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson put it to the expert that his report had gaps related to the conduct of the conflict and some of the central characters who were involved. She noted that whereas the expert travelled to the capitals of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo to interview witnesses, he did not travel to the CAR.
“In so far as you saw nothing, you never met with military authorities in the field, how you can describe in certainty the unfolding of the conflict and the timeline of the conflict?” she asked.
General Seara responded that his report was “a summary account of the events” based on documents provided to him by the defense team, as well as interviews with some of the senior military officers who were involved in the conflict. “I tried to take all various elements of information provided by the defense and tried create a chronology,” he explained.
However, he added: “It is probably incomplete. If I had been aware of certain information, I would have included it in the report.”
Another legal representative of victims, Assingambi Zarambaud, challenged the expert to explain how he reached the conclusion that the accused was not in position to command his troops. The expert replied that to be able to command, one must be informed in real time. “At the general staff there is usually a huge map which follows in real time the movement and progression of troops on the ground. If you don’t have such a map, if you don’t have a picture of what is happening on the ground, how can you command?” replied General Seara. He said the situation map for all loyalist forces was at the Center for Command Operations (CCOP) in the Central African capital Bangui, run by President Ange-Félix Patassé’s commanders. He added that this map was updated on a daily basis.
In its cross-examination, the prosecution raised some issues similar to those of victims’ lawyers, including the completeness of the report and the core conclusion that Mr. Bemba was not in command of his troops. General Seara stated that although a communication log tendered by prosecutors showed the accused’s commanders sought supplies from their Congo headquarters, logistics for the force were actually the responsibility of Central African military authorities. Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson, the General said there was a lack of stock in the CAR and if fighting had to continue, it may have been “necessary” that ammunition came from elsewhere. Most of the cross-examination was conducted in closed session. Mr. Iverson read out excerpts of a January 2003 radio message from Mustafa Mukiza, the field commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops in the conflict country. The message addressed to the group’s chief of staff requested for a large consignment of equipment including sub machine guns, grenades, motors, and ammunition. The message was signed ‘We have faith in the hierarchy.’
“Would your conclusion that CAR authorities were handling logistics be incorrect if the MLC headquarters were supplying ammunition?” asked Mr. Iverson.
“The logistics were taken care of by the CAR authorities. That does not mean that at all times, the stocks and ammunition of the CAR were sufficient to supply all the forces,” replied the expert.
Furthermore, he stated that if the MLC high command indeed met the request for ammunition, which was not indicated in the message, they could not have had the means to deliver it to Congolese troops out in the field without the assistance of Central African authorities. The expert said, “These quantities, how many tons do you think they are? How many people would be required to move them? Who was going to drive? They had to be unloaded. That is logistics for you.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Douzima-Lawson disputed the dates the expert said Mr. Bemba’s fighters joined in the conflict. She also questioned the command structures described by the expert, which showed that Central African authorities, rather than Mr. Bemba, commanded the Congolese contingent deployed in the conflict. Furthermore, Ms. Douzima-Lawson disputed the dates General Seara gave regarding the appointment of some Central African military commanders. She also questioned the General’s knowledge of the geography of the CAR, particularly the towns mentioned in his report where atrocities were committed. In his report and in-court testimony, General Seara says Mr. Bemba had no means to command his troops who were involved in the conflict, and that he did not have regular or direct communication with them. He says Central African military authorities issued orders to all loyalist forces that fought on the side of Mr. Patassé, and these included the MLC contingent.
Also this week, General Seara said CAR military authorities had the obligation to discipline Mr. Bemba’s soldiers who fought alongside them. He said because the MLC fighters were under the charge and jurisdiction of Central African commanders, it was them who should have disciplined the fighters.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that even though Mr. Bemba was based in Congo at the time of the conflict, it was his duty to discipline and he had the means to discipline his fighters who allegedly committed atrocities in the neighboring country. He is on trial for allegedly having failed, as a commander, to rein in his rampaging forces. He denies the charges. “The Chief of General Staff of the Central African forces had powers to take such [disciplinary] measures,” General Jacques Seara stated during redirect examination by defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba. Mr. Kilolo-Musamba had asked whether Colonel Mustafa Mukiza, who commanded the deployed Congolese forces, had “the ultimate responsibility for disciplinary measures in any cases where disciplinary offenses may have occurred in CAR.” Mr. Kilolo-Musamba also asked the expert which court should have undertaken legal proceedings in regard to crimes the MLC may have committed in the conflict country. The expert responded that there was no defined position on this matter prior to the arrival of the Congolese troops on Central African territory. In this situation, he said, the chief of staff of the CAR armed forces should have consulted his defense and justice ministers to make a determination. General Seara added, “It appears there was some agreement for those soldiers to be sent back to the DRC to be tried there, so someone gets the impression Central African authorities didn’t want to try them,” he added. However, General Seara told the trial that there are two documents lacking in court records, which would have helped to establish some contested or unknown issues. The first is an archive of the operational orders that were issued by the CCOP, the body that spearheaded the government campaign against insurgents. The second is the log or register of daily activities of the operation. The expert explained that such an archive would have comprised – among others – a daily recording of the number of orders given, wounded persons and the units they belonged to, and particular reports of incidents, including possibilities of crimes that may have been committed. “If those two documents were available, they would have been a significant contribution to establishing what happened in operations and what happened outside the scope of operations on a day-to-day basis,” said General Seara. He also noted, “If such things were put down in such a logbook, we would see what measures had been taken by the operations command center to deal with such incidents … but we really don’t know, we’re at a loss here.”
The trial resumes on September 3 to hear the evidence of the second defense witness.