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Linguistics Expert Begins Testimony at ICC

Today,  linguistics expert Professor Eyamba George Bokamba started testifying at the Bemba trial on the origins and ‘social linguistics’ of the Lingala language, which is widely spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Professor Bokamba, who has lectured at the University of Illinois in the United States since receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University, is providing testimony that the defense hopes will enable the trial chamber assess accusations that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s soldiers, who spoke that language, were the perpetrators of atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR).

He said a key element of the report he has prepared for the court is on the social linguistics of Lingala in the CAR. Another is the structural relationships between the Central African language Sango and Lingala, as well as the use of Lingala in the CAR.

The expert explained that Lingala developed around 1866-1880 as an amalgamation of various Congolese languages spoken around the confluence of the Mongala and Congo rivers.

The witness also said while Lingala belongs to the Bantu group of languages spoken in numerous countries in east, central, and southern Africa, Sango belongs to the Oubanguian language group.

Numerous prosecution witnesses testified that soldiers who brutalized civilians during the 2002-2003 conflict in the CAR were members of Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). They primarily identified them because they spoke Lingala and not Sango.

However, the defense argues that there are Central Africans, particularly in border areas that were the scene of the conflict, who speak Lingala. Furthermore, the defense argues that elements of Central African armed forces spoke Lingala, some of them having been trained in the Congo.

According to International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors, Mr. Bemba was the president and commander-in-chief of the MLC. They claim he “effectively acted as a military commander and had effective authority and control over his troops” who committed rapes, murders, and pillaging in the conflict. In addition, prosecutors say 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.”

Besides denying that he had the means to command his troops who were deployed in the conflict in the CAR while he remained in the Congo, Mr. Bemba also claims that any of the numerous armed groups involved in the fighting could have committed the atrocities over which he is being tried.

Professor William Jean Samarin, also a linguistics expert, last March testified for the prosecution 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 because of accent variations. Samarin, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, stated that Congo is the only one among countries that neighbor the CAR where there are Bantu-speaking populations.

Professor Bokamba continues his testimony tomorrow morning.