International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors have challenged the testimony of a witness for Jean-Pierre Bemba, who stated that it was not possible to tell the identity of perpetrators of atrocities during the 2002–2003 Central African armed conflict based on the language they spoke.
Prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga sought to establish what armed group the alleged Lingala speaking soldiers who raped, murdered, and pillaged belonged to, if not the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia.
Linguistics expert Professor Eyamba George Bokamba has stated that besides the Democratic Republic of Congo, there were numerous Lingala speakers in the Republic of Congo, Angola, Gabon, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. He also said some Central African Republic (CAR) citizens, as well as migrants from Congo, spoke Lingala.
It is the contention of prosecutors that Mr. Bemba’s troops committed rapes, murders, and looting, when they were deployed in the CAR. Witnesses to the crimes have testified that the perpetrators were members of the accused’s group, primarily based on the language they spoke, which they identified as Lingala.
Mr. Badibanga put it to the expert that various court documents indicated that armed groups active in the conflict were from Libya, the CAR, Chad, and Congo, which would indicate that among them only the Congolese forces spoke Lingala.
“I do not know,” responded the professor, who added that his analysis did not cover the composition of the different forces. “I cannot therefore say that there were no Lingala speaking groups apart from the MLC. One can easily see the exclusion of Libya and Chad as not having Lingala speaking soldiers.”
The expert also said that should there have been Lingala speakers amongst the Central African armed forces, the local language Sango would have been the “default natural” language of communication between these soldiers and civilians.
On the possibility that for any reason, Lingala speaking Central African forces, upon attacking Central Africans would have chosen to speak to civilians in Lingala as opposed to Sango, the expert said, “Whether one would choose to camouflage themselves is not beyond imagination. But that is not in my domain of expertise.”
The expert said a military force may use one common language but constitute soldiers who speak various languages.
Meanwhile, it emerged during cross-examination that the defense did not avail to the expert information relating to the nationality of the various armed groups in the conflict. Professor Bokamba also said he did not review the in-court testimony of prosecution witnesses who gave background information on their ability to recognize the perpetrators of the crimes.
These witnesses stated that all Central African armed forces spoke Sango and that the identification of Congolese soldiers as the perpetrators, besides speaking Lingala, was based on their accents while speaking French or words in Sango.
“If this information was made available to you, would it have enabled you to conduct further analysis for your report?” asked Mr. Badibanga.
“Definitely, it would have,” replied the professor. However, he reaffirmed that using a particular language was not sufficient proof of an individual’s nationality.
Lawyers representing victims in the trial are due to start questioning the expert tomorrow morning.