On November 22, 2010, the trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba opened at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prosecutors called 40 witnesses to give evidence about the accused’s alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetuated by his fighters during the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). This article gives an overview of evidence presented by the prosecution. However, it should be noted that what is presented here does not include the evidence heard in closed session.
Prosecutors charge that troops belonging to Mr. Bemba’s private militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who were deployed in support of then CAR president Angé-Felix Patassé’s fight against a coup attempt, brutalized civilians. According to prosecutors, “repeated widespread and brutal” rapes, murders, and pillaging accompanied the progression of the Congolese forces.
The prosecution charges that as president and commander-in-chief of the group, Mr. Bemba knew that his troops were committing crimes but “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.” They further charge that Mr. Bemba is therefore criminally responsible, as military commander, of two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging).
The prosecution’s oral evidence was presented by four categories of witnesses. The first category was crime-based witnesses, namely persons who were victimized or witnessed the victimization of others. Second were overview witnesses, who provided evidence on the elements of the crimes charged. Third were expert witnesses – persons whose education, training, and experience enabled them to provide an assessment, opinion, or judgment within an area of expertise. Finally, there were insiders who testified about the activities of the MLC during the conflict.
Besides testimony given by witnesses, the prosecution also presented evidence through various documents, filings, and submissions made to court. At the opening of the trial, prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur said the crimes committed by the MLC troops were not incidental but were “permitted as military tactic.” She added:
They committed rape any way, any time against any women, girls or elderly people as well as against men with authority. They did it at night, or in broad daylight, in homes, in compounds, on the streets, in the fields, in public and in private.
Ms. Kneur also contended that these killings followed a pattern: “They killed civilians who resisted rape, physical violence and pillaging. They killed them sometimes as part of a single attack or as a series of attacks.”
Up to nine witnesses recounted being gang-raped by MLC soldiers, often in day light and in front of their family members. ‘Witness 68’ and ‘Witness 29’ stated that they tested positive for HIV after being gang-raped, although one of them was unsure whether she contracted the virus from her attackers.
‘Witness 23,’ a man of authority in his locality, told the trial that he was sodomized by three Congolese soldiers in the presence of his wife and children. He said that over a period of four days, the soldiers repeatedly raped his children and his wives. “When they felt the need to sleep with a woman, they would come back [to my home],” he said. He added that the soldiers shot one of his wives dead.
Another rape survivor, ‘Witness 82,’ who was 12 years old at the time of the events, recounted how two soldiers raped her. The soldiers also raped her sisters and grandmothers, and murdered her brother.
Dr. Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith, a clinical psychologist and the first expert witness to take the witness stand, testified about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Central African survivors of sexual violence. She stated that the physical and psychological effects of rape were “extensive” among the victims she assessed. The victims also felt shame and guilt, she said.
Another expert, André Tabo, testified on rape as a weapon of war. He said Mr. Bemba’s soldiers raped women they accused of supporting rebels, they considered them attractive war booty, or wanted to destabilize the enemy troops. Sometimes the rapes were carried out for sexual release and the troops that were out of control felt they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.
Numerous accounts of looting were heard during the prosecution’s presentation of evidence. Homes, bars, shops, and market stalls were allegedly ransacked by the accused’s fighters and various property including foodstuffs, alcohol, livestock, and household items were stolen.
One pillage victim, Flavien Mbata, a Central African judicial official, recounted how Mr. Bemba’s troops forcibly occupied and looted his house. He presented to court documents he said the retreating troops left behind in his house. The documents, which included an information bulletin and a military training manual, were both headed “Congolese Liberation Army.”
Witnesses stated that looted property was transported across the Oubangui River into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The trial also heard that there were instances when Central African soldiers blocked the shipment of looted goods to Congo, which prompted the foreign fighters to carry out reprisal attacks on civilians.
Most insider witnesses who testified about the MLC’s operations and military structure and gave evidence linking Mr. Bemba to the crimes, gave all their testimonies in closed session. A few had brief moments in open court. Most of those who testified in closed session served with the MLC in senior positions. But there were also Central African military officers who worked with the accused’s troops during the conflict, who testified in court – mostly in open court.
Some stated that the MLC operated alongside Central African armed forces and that the foreign troops received supplies, fuel, ammunition, communication devices, and transportation from the national army. However, some of these witnesses stated that the Congolese troops were not under the control of Central African authorities and that the accused remotely gave frequent and direct orders. They told the court that Mustafa Mukiza, the commander of the Congolese troops stationed in the neighboring country, was in regular contact with Mr. Bemba.
“Witness 33’ told the trial that the accused had a communication center just outside his residence, which he used to communicate with his commanders on the ground. ‘Witness 65’ described communication logs and messages transmitted during October and November 2002 by officers in Mr. Bemba’s group who were deployed on the battlefront. He affirmed that each time messages were transmitted to and from one of the group’s operations centers, a carbon copy was sent to Mr. Bemba “for information purposes.”
Numerous insider witnesses stated that the Congolese soldiers had a disciplinary code of conduct. However, on the front line this code was ignored. For instance, ‘Witness 45’ said that whilst the group had a code governing the conduct of its troops, the regulations were “very difficult” to implement due to the “detachment” between soldiers at the battlefront and their high command headquarters. He said that the high command became “laissez-faire” about implementing the code. According to this witness, it was only after “international pressure was exerted” that a tribunal was set up by the accused to try low-ranking officers. However, the trials were allegedly stage managed and convicted soldiers were released before serving their full sentences.
Joseph Mokondoui, a retired Central African army colonel testified that Mr. Bemba’s troops operated independently and did not carry out joint operations with the national army. However, he said, the accused’s troops regularly received intelligence information from the local military authorities. Meanwhile, Thierry Lengbe, a colonel in the Central African army, stated that the Congolese militia carried out only one joint operation with the CAR army. He said Central African army radio communication equipment did not work with the MLC communication equipment.
A number of insider witnesses recalled Mr. Bemba visiting his troops in the conflict country. In particular, ‘Witness 213’ said several civilian corpses lay along the roads that Mr. Bemba took to visit his troops in the field. However, the accused did not speak about the corpses, or the need for discipline, when he addressed his troops. Instead, he encouraged them and thanked them for the work they were doing.
In his testimony, General Daniel Opande, a military expert, gave evidence about military command structure and command responsibility. The retired Kenyan military officer and former commander of various United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa said the accused was the supreme leader of his group and had “assured” means to issue direct commands to his troops both at home and in the conflict country. He also testified that the MLC had a hierarchy and organization synonymous with military organization.Identity of Perpetrators
At the core of the testimony of many crime-based witnesses was identification of the perpetrators as Congolese nationals, primarily because they spoke Lingala, a Congolese language. Professor William Jean Samarin, a linguistics expert, testified that Central Africans could recognize Lingala if they heard it. They could also tell the nationality of Congolese citizens if they spoke French or Sango (a CAR language) because of accent variations. Witnesses also stated that they could distinguish the Congolese troops from the other armed forces active in the conflict because they were ill-dressed, did not know their way around the areas they operated in, and sometimes took on as their interpreters Congolese immigrants who were working in the CAR.
The trial heard that Central African authorities carried out an inquiry into crimes committed during the conflict before referring the Bemba case to the ICC. Firmin Feindiro, Bangui’s top prosecutor who led that probe, testified that his investigations concluded that the MLC perpetrated some crimes. However, a judge in Bangui dismissed the charges Mr. Feindiro attempted to pursue. In his testimony before court, Judge Pamphile Oradimo told the trial that he did not find sufficient evidence implicating Mr. Bemba. Besides, he said, Mr. Bemba had since acquired immunity and could not have been tried.
While acknowledging the presence of his troops on Central African territory, Mr. Bemba denies all charges against him. His defense argues that once his troops left Congolese territory, he did not have direct command over them as they then fell under the direct command of Central African authorities. Furthermore, the defense contends that any of the other armed groups active in the conflict could have committed the alleged crimes.
Besides Mr. Bemba’s fighters, other foreign forces involved in the conflict included Libyan soldiers, Community of Saharan-Sahel State (CEN-SAD) troops in support of Patassé’s government forces, and Chadian nationals who fought alongside insurgents led by François Bozizé. Furthermore, there were several local ethnic militias and numerous army units active in the conflict.
The defense case is set to start on August 15, 2012.