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Expert Says Bemba Troops Were a “Legitimate” Force in the CAR Conflict

Today, the second witness called by the defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba said the intervention of the accused’s troops in the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) was “legitimate” and partly intended to protect the national security of Congo.

Octave Dioba, a geo-political expert, gave a background to that conflict and described the troubled political history of both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the CAR.

Mr. Bemba is on trial for failing to control his rampaging Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers who allegedly brutalized civilians in the CAR. His soldiers were in that country to help its then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to fight off a coup attempt.

Mr. Dioba explained that during 2002, the Congolese government did not have full control of the vast country. Mr. Bemba’s militia controlled northern Congo while another rebel force, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), controlled the eastern part. In 1999, the warring factions signed the Lusaka Agreement, which defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba presented before court.

The expert said the agreement legitimized the warring factions and conferred upon them powers of administration over the territories they controlled. Furthermore, the signatories committed to finding solutions to Congo’s security concerns and ensuring safety at the country’s borders. As part of a power-sharing agreement, rebel forces were integrated into the national army and Mr. Bemba became one of Congo’s vice presidents.

Mr. Dioba said it was “clear and precise” that the parties agreed to carry out military action along Congo’s borders to ensure the country’s security.

“The DRC has a border with the CAR, so the army of the MLC had to look after this border at the same level as the RCD had to look after the eastern frontier with Rwanda,” said the witness.

The expert stated that coups d’état were the “preferred method” of ascending to presidency in the CAR. He recounted the overthrow of the country’s first president, David Dacko, by Jean-Bédel Bokassa in 1965. In 1979, he said, Mr. Dacko regained power by overthrowing the Bokassa regime. Two years later, a coup led by André Kolingba ousted Mr. Dacko. Democratically elected president Patassé, who came into power in 1993, was faced with two insurgencies. Mr. Kolingba led a failed attempt in 2001, but the second one led by François Bozizé, the current president of the country, succeeded in March 2003.

While acknowledging the participation of his troops in the conflict, Mr. Bemba denies all five charges he faces at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He argues that once his troops crossed the Congo border, they were no longer under his command but that of Mr. Patassé.

In their opening statement, Mr. Bemba’s defense argued that at the time of the MLC’s deployment in the neighboring country, they were not a private militia but “an authority recognized by the international community” whose intervention was endorsed with a resolution by the African Union.

Mr. Dioba continues to testify in the trial tomorrow morning.