This week, two former officials in the government of the late president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Ange-Félix Patassé, testified in defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since November 2010.
They said it was not true that the troops belonging to the group that the accused led committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Instead, they said, it was rebels led by General Francois Bozizé who raped, murdered, and pillaged. It was also the evidence of one of the witnesses, an unnamed former intelligence officer in the Central African armed forces, that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers deployed in the conflict received orders from Mr. Patassé’s commanders.
The week opened with the testimony of Prosper Ndouba, a former spokesperson to Mr. Patassé. He said that he was abducted on October 25, 2002 and during the 38 days he was held captive by the Bozizé rebels, he heard some of them speaking the Congolese language Lingala. “When I was with them at PK 12, some of them did speak Lingala amongst themselves. They said it was so that they would be taken for MLC troops and not rebels,” the witness said.
“Why would Bozizé’s rebels speak Lingala and pretend to be someone else if the MLC wasn’t in the CAR at the time?” asked prosecuting lawyer Petra Kneur.
“They expected them [the MLC] to arrive,” replied the witness. He did not say how many Central African soldiers he heard speaking Lingala.
Prosecutors charge that soldiers who brutalized civilians were from the MLC and prosecution witnesses identified them as such because they spoke Lingala. Mr. Bemba contends the marauding soldiers did not belong to his group. He is on trial for allegedly failing to control his troops who prosecutors say brutalized civilians during the 2002-2003 conflict in the CAR.
Mr. Ndouba reiterated that Bozizé’s fighters committed crimes and said they were the only armed group in the capital Bangui at the time of his abduction. According to him, the local population was “terrorized” and “frightened” when the rebels occupied their neighborhoods.
Under questioning by victims’ lawyer Assingambi Zarambaud, Mr. Ndouba asserted that no MLC troops were present in Bangui at the time of his abduction.
The witness also said he was not aware of any crimes or abuses committed by Mr. Bemba’s troops because he did not have access to radio news reports during the 38 days he was held hostage. Within a few days of being released by the rebels and returning to Bangui in December 2002, he traveled to the United States and thereafter to France.
He said the Bozizé rebels lacked supplies and as a result looted shops, farms, and households in Bangui and its neighborhoods. “I saw them do that,” he said.
The testimony of Mr. Ndouba seemed to undermine that of prosecution witnesses who testified about crimes committed in Bangui, purportedly by the accused’s fighters, as early as October 25, 2002.
Prosecutors questioned Mr. Ndouba about inconsistencies between his testimony in court and the account he gave in a book published in 2006.
While the witness told the trial last week that he had no contact with his family during the captivity, this week he conceded that, as detailed in his book titled L’otage du général rebelle centrafricain François Bozizé, family members visited him on two occasions.
Mr. Ndouba has also previously testified that at the time of his captivity, the Bozize rebels were the only armed group in the capital Bangui. However, in his book he recounts hearing talk amongst his captors that MLC forces had taken up positions in the capital on the evening of his abduction.
He clarified this week that there were rumors of the presence of MLC fighters in Bangui at the time but he believed they had not arrived yet.
Ms. Kneur asked the witness whether, given his personal feelings toward Mr. Bozizé following his abduction and subsequent loss of his job, he was impartial and objective.
Mr. Ndouba answered that it was only “human” that he has hard feelings toward the current CAR president. However, he added that his testimony is a true account of the events as he experienced them.
Meanwhile, a former intelligence officer in the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) gave details of logistics support provided by President Patassé’s government to the MLC troops.
Testifying with protective measures, including image and voice distortion, ‘Witness D04-07’ also said the accused’s troops received orders from CAR authorities. He said the Congolese troops crossed into the conflict country aboard a ferry belonging to the Central African transportation service SOCATRAF.
Upon arrival in Bangui, Mr. Patassé’s defense minister met the troops, some of whom were dressed in civilian clothes. Local authorities then provided the foreign troops with FACA uniforms, ranger boots, ammunition, vehicles, and communication equipment.
The witness said the Congolese troops received a daily subsistence allowance of 2,500 Central African Francs, the same that FACA soldiers got.
He testified that Central African authorities provided Mr. Bemba’s fighters with Thuraya satellite communications devices to facilitate their operations beyond PK 12, a Bangui suburb , as they moved towards Damara and Boali towns. Ferdinand Bombayake, a Central African general, personally handed over the devices, which the witness said had the same frequency as those used by FACA.
Asked by defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba why the Congolese troops were given Thuraya sets, the witness said it was to avoid communications being intercepted by the Bozizé’s rebels. The rebels were attempting to overthrow Mr. Patassé, who then called in support from the MLC.
“When Bozizé left, he had taken the radio frequency with him. So his rebel forces and the CAR forces had the same frequency. That is why the rebels reached Bangui quickly. Bozizé’s troops were aware of the communications going out,” he explained.
“Do you know how the MLC in the CAR went about gathering information about the rebel forces’ strengths, weapons, positions, etc?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
“Information came by way of the CCOP,” replied the witness, referring to the Center for Command Operations, the outfit run by Mr. Patassé’s commanders that spearheaded the campaign against the insurgents. The witness said the organization of loyalist forces and operational orders were coordinated at this center.
‘Witness D04-07’ asserted that the Congolese troops arrived in Bangui four to five days after the October 25, 2002 coup attempt by Mr. Bozizé.
He said FACA leaders commanded joint operations with MLC troops. Such joint operations, which were coordinated by the CCOP, continued until the fall of Mr. Patassé in March 2003. He denied assertions by the prosecution that Mr. Bemba fighters crossed into the CAR with their own communication equipment.
The former intelligence officer also recounted atrocities committed by the Bozizé rebels during their occupation of Bangui prior to the MLC’s arrival. He said among the rebel ranks were children, some of them as young as 10 years old. The rebels were “uncontrollable” and without means of replenishing their supplies, so they lived off the population.
“They were aggressive. They threatened people. They seized property. They raped women,” he said. Whoever tried to stop them would get shot at, he added.