On Tuesday, August 14, 2012, Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba started his defense in his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Bemba has been detained at the ICC detention center following his arrest by Belgian authorities in May 2008 and hand-over to the court based in The Hague. Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba is criminally responsible, as military commander, of two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crime (murder, rape, and pillaging) arising from the misconduct of his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops deployed in a conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. He denies the charges. The Congolese troops were supporting president Ange-Félix Patassé who faced an insurgency led by François Bozizé. On the eve of the opening of the defense case, Mr. Bemba’s lead defense counsel, Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, talked to the www.bembatrial.org website.
Wairagala Wakabi: Prosecution witnesses have said the soldiers who were committing crimes were MLC troops. Many of the witnesses identified them by the language they spoke, how they were dressed, and many other things. But you have said the MLC troops were sometimes not even in that area when the crimes were committed. How will you react to the charge that it was the MLC and not other groups who committed the crimes?
Aimé Kilolo-Musamba: We shall have witnesses and victims from areas in Bangui where the prosecution says MLC soldiers committed crimes on certain dates. They will declare that many Bozizé troops were occupying those areas and they committed many crimes. The witnesses will explain how Bozizé’s troops, especially those from Chad, were committing rape, pillaging, and murder. They will also explain that many people from Bozizé’s group did not wear uniforms because he also recruited many civilians to join his forces and those civilians from Bangui did not have uniforms.
The question of Lingala [the Congolese language witnesses said MLC soldiers spoke] is not the main question because as you know it is on the border, and many people in Bangui can speak Lingala. And also you need to know that there was military cooperation between the CAR and the DRC in former times and many soldiers in the CAR were trained in Congo and they speak Lingala. We have some witnesses from Bangui who speak Lingala.
WW: They speak Lingala yet they are CAR citizens?
WW: We have also heard some cases where government militia, such as that led by Abdoulaye Miskine, committed crimes.
AKM: Patassé engaged two categories of loyalist forces. The first had the MLC, the Libyans, the Sudanese people from CEN-SAD (Community of Saharan-Sahel States). That was one group. There were also fighters who were like his private militia – like the fighters led by Miskine and Paul Barrel of the SCPS [la Société centrafricaine de protection et de surveillance]. Many people from these private militia groups also committed crimes, but MLC was not part of those people. But the truth is also this, and the military expert will establish it clearly: there is never zero risk when you send soldiers to the ground. It may happen that some individuals could commit crimes but to say MLC soldiers committed crimes as a technique to instil terror in the civilian population, this is not true.
WW: That brings us to the issue of was Mr. Bemba aware of what was happening on the ground? Did he know that some of his people were committing crimes? And did he take the right action when he learnt of incidents of his soldiers committing crimes?
AKM: The only information which came to Mr. Bemba wasn’t that his soldiers were committing crimes against civilians. The information which came was that, when Bozizé’s troops were retreating they left behind property they had stolen from civilians and some MLC soldiers came to take it. Ideally, they were expected to give the property to CAR authorities. There were few, seven or so [MLC soldiers taking the property], they were immediately punished. When Mr. Bemba heard about it, he immediately went to visit president Patassé to discuss the matter. He also went to see the MLC soldiers in PK 12 and reminded them to maintain discipline and that they are under CAR authority.
Furthermore, he sent Romain Mondonga and others from Gbadolite [the MLC headquarters in Congo] as part of the commission of the CAR to aid with investigations into what happened during the conflict. The only thing the commission found was that some MLC soldiers were trying to steal property, which had already been stolen from the civilian population by Bozizé’s troops. He also wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to ask for an investigation from them. He also wrote to CAR Prime Minister Martin Ziguele to ask him what had happened. And the answer which was coming officially from the CAR government was that it is not true [that MLC soldiers were committing crimes], even the things you are hearing on the radio are made up by Bozizé’s troops.
WW: We have heard from prosecution witnesses that the trials of the seven MLC soldiers accused of committing crimes were stage-managed just to try and show the international community that the MLC was doing something about the crimes, but in reality there was little being done. That even soldiers found guilty were released before serving their full sentences, which according to prosecutors shows Mr. Bemba was not serious about punishing his soldiers who were committing crimes.
AKM: First of all, no soldier was released before the end of his sentence, and there will be people who will come to explain the time they spent in prison and official documents showing the time they left prison. Secondly, the CAR authorities were primarily responsible for bringing soldiers to justice by investigating and sentencing the ones who would be found guilty. But since the CAR did not do this, the MLC only sentenced the ones against whom they found proof.
WW: So everybody served their sentence; nobody was released before serving their full sentence?
WW: The other issue is of who was in command of the MLC troops in the CAR. At the center of the prosecution case is that Mr. Bemba had regular communication with his fighters in the CAR, that they briefed him all the time and he was the one issuing command; nobody else.
AKM: This is not true, and I think you will learn a lot from listening to the military expert [the first witness the defense called], a general from the French army. The issue of command and control of the troops, you can [comprehend it] when you first of all examine the logistics. You will hear that all the ammunition, the weapons and the cars to move on the ground were supplied by the CAR authorities. Second is the intelligence – finding out the intention of the enemy, which kind of weapons they have and their location. All of this was managed by the CAR authorities.
The device of communication was given to Mustafa [Mukiza, the overall commander of the MLC contingent deployed in the conflict country] by the CAR authorities. When the MLC left Congo, they did not have an Order of Operation. All troops, when you go to war you must have this document. It explains your mission, what you are going to do exactly, how you are going to fight, which kind of weapons you will get. The MLC did not have this document when they left Congo; they received it from CAR authorities when they arrived there. All this shows that Mr. Bemba did not have anything to do with that [command].
Also the prosecution has said Mr. Bemba was using a Thuraya [satellite phone] to speak to Mustafa but the Thuraya was given to Mustafa by the CAR government. And also, in the beginning Mustafa did not have a Thuraya when they started the operation in Bangui town. It is only when he started to leave PK12 to go very far from Bangui that they gave him a Thuraya. But many crimes they are talking about are alleged to have been committed in the town during a time when Mustafa did not even have a Thuraya.
WW: But Mr. Bemba had means of communicating and had regular communication with the soldiers?
AKM: We have even heard one of the prosecution witnesses – I think it was Witness 65 – who explained that it was difficult to even be in contact with Mustafa’s operator in Bangui because the [communication] link was very difficult and even sometimes after one week, five days, they had no news. And when they spoke with them it was to give them general information [such as] we have some people who were injured, or died, and the operator explained that they could not communicate with them because they were moving on the ground under CAR authorities.
WW: Apart from those areas, what else is the defense planning to talk about? What other evidence are we likely to hear from the defense?
AKM: The most important is the area of command and control. Who has command and control? To answer that question is to answer many other questions. Before the troops left Zongo (in Congo), did they meet Mr. Bemba? Yes or no? When they were crossing the river, who gave the means of transportation to go to the CAR? Who made the security for the crossing? When they arrived at the other side, who welcomed them? Where did they put them to live? Who gave them weapons? What kind of weapons did they give them? When they were crossing, did they have enough weapons to wage war? Who gave them the big trucks for transporting troops on the ground? When they arrived, who gave them the maps of the town to explain to them where to go? Who gave them the mission? All those questions are very important?
Were they mixed with the FACA (Central African national armed forces) or not? Who decided about it? What was Mustafa doing when he was brought to Patassé’s house with General [Ferdinand] Bombayake for discussions in Bemba’s absence? Who was giving them information about the enemy? Who was telling them that tomorrow at 3am you must attack this place, you will use this kind of weapon? Who decided that Libyans were going to fight with them, helping them from the back with aeroplanes, with bombs? Who gave them the radios they were using? Who gave the frequencies? Once we have answers to these questions we shall have answers as to who was in command and control.
WW: On the frequencies, Mr. Kilolo, I recall one witness saying that the radios the MLC were using could not be picked by the Central African army. And this is one of the witnesses who was saying this shows the MLC operated independently of the FACA.
AKM: We will have an operator who was there and who will explain who gave the MLC the radios. And our answer is clear: the radios came from the CAR army who gave them all means of communication. They didn’t use their own radios for operations in the CAR.
WW: On a different topic, what are the challenges of dealing with more than 4,000 victims granted permission to participate in the trial?
Those victims are not involved in the proceedings at this stage. It is only if Mr. Bemba is convicted, which I think will not be the case, that they can come to discuss their concerns.
WW: About the ten victims who are going to testify for the defense, are they already participating in the proceedings?
AKM: No. There are some victims who were not called by the prosecution and who are going to explain what they suffered and give the names of the perpetrators. From the prosecution, the witnesses did not give the names to say the perpetrator of this crime is X person.
WW: What are your views generally of the role victims have played in the trial?
AKM: If you remember, one of the victims who testified explained that he was not even a victim. He said, ‘when I was registering [for participating status] in the CAR, they asked me to say that my young wife was raped by MLC troops; they even asked me to add some things that were stolen from my house but which I did not have in life but I am a Christian, I want to tell the truth. And even the guy who was helping me to fill the form told me I am not clever, [that] everybody is explaining that they are a victim to get some money. But it is not true, even my wife had a normal relationship with one of the soldiers of MLC; there was no case of raping her.’ So, what victims are saying is not always true, first about the fact of being a victim, but among them there are also victims telling the truth of what they suffered. But about the identity, some of those people don’t even know even who the perpetrator was.
Don’t forget that there was Madame [Bernadette] Sayo of OCODEFAD [the non-government organisation L’Organisation pour la Compassion et le Développement des Familles en Détresse] who is a member of Bozizé’s government who registered many of the victims in the trial. There is no single victim of Bozizé soldiers yet everybody knows from reports of international NGOs that many rapes and pillaging were committed by Bozizé’s troops even after the war.
WW: Is this something you will be bringing out, that some of the victims’ testimonies are not factual, that they were helped by someone to try and give a false account of what happened?
AKM: We don’t even need to go deep into this because it has already been said by a prosecution witness. But what we need to prove is the identity of the perpetrators, that it was not crimes. They must look at the Bozizé troops and the private militia of Patassé.
WW: What kind of witnesses are you calling?
AKM: A military expert, a geo-political expert, a linguistics expert, soldiers from FACA, soldiers from a special group of FACA called the Presidential Guard (USP), MLC insiders both civilians and soldiers, and we have Bozizé soldiers, the one who were fighting against MLC, who will explain themselves the kind of crimes that were being committed among them.