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Was it Bemba’s Fighters or Not? Identity of Perpetrators Dominates Trial

This week, the identity of the perpetrators of crimes during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) was at the center of proceedings in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Linguistics expert Professor Eyamba George Bokamba said there was no proof that soldiers who brutalized civilians were from Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia. However, prosecutors insisted only soldiers from the accused’s militia spoke Lingala, the language witnesses to the atrocities recalled hearing their assailants speak.

Also this week, a geopolitical expert concluded his testimony; while a former spokesperson for the late Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé commenced giving evidence.

Most of the trial proceedings were focused on the identity of the perpetrators, which is an issue that is critical to the five charges against Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He has denied prosecution claims that his solders committed rapes, murders, and pillaging, and that as their commander-in-chief, he made no efforts to rein them in.

The defense argues that any of the armed groups active in the conflict, including forces loyal to Mr. Patassé and rebel forces led by François Bozizé, could have committed the alleged crimes. Furthermore, Mr. Bemba denies that he had the means to command his troops who were deployed in the conflict in the CAR while he remained in the Congo.

Professor Bokamba said it was not possible to tell which group the Lingala speaking soldiers belonged to, merely because of the language they spoke. He said that there were Central African citizens who spoke Lingala, although this language is native to the Congo.

According to the expert, there is a large Lingala speaking population in the DRC and in the Republic of Congo. In addition, there are an estimated 86,000 Lingala speakers in Angola and other speakers of the language in Gabon, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. The expert did not have the figures for speakers of the language in the CAR, but he said he had seen estimates of around 10,000.

Numerous prosecution witnesses testified that soldiers who brutalized civilians were from the MLC. They primarily identified them because they spoke Lingala and not Sango, a widely spoken local language.

Professor Bokamba, who has lectured at the University of Illinois in the United States since receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University, said some of the Lingala speakers in the CAR were Congolese who escaped turmoil in their home country. Others were traders and migrant workers, including miners. The Central African nationals who spoke the language were exposed to it in a number of ways.

“One is the traders who from the 1900s to recent times have been navigating the Oubangui river. CAR is separated from the Congo by the Oubangui river and this is literary a highway for riverine traders,” he said.

Bangui, the CAR capital where the prosecution alleges the accused’s fighters committed many of the crimes, is located opposite Zongo town across the Oubangui river. Many other Congolese towns, including Gbadolite where the MLC headquarters were, lie along the river.

The expert stated that Central African soldiers resident in Bangui would have been exposed to Lingala. They could also have been exposed to the language through listening to Congolese music that is popular in CAR. He said an estimated 70 percent of Congolese music is produced in Lingala.

Furthermore, the expert said he had gathered from various sources that during the 1970s and 1980s, the Congolese government had a training program for CAR soldiers. The training took place in Congo, and because Lingala had since colonial times been the official language of the Congolese armed forces, such soldiers could even have learned the language, depending on the length of their training programs.

During cross-examination, prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga put it to the expert that various court documents indicated that the 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.”

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.

This week also saw the completion of testimony by geopolitical expert Octave Dioba, who affirmed that the political and strategic responsibility for acts of violence perpetrated against civilians did not lie with the accused. If the troops Mr. Bemba had placed at the “disposal” of the neighboring country’s leaders indeed committed crimes, then responsibility lay with those authorities.

“Mr. Bemba was not a member of the CAR supreme military command. He can not be held liable for acts of violence. The Central African military command was mostly responsible for the operational aspects of troops,” said the geopolitical expert.

Meanwhile, Prosper Ndouba, the former spokesperson for Mr. Patassé, started testifying on Friday, by recounting his abduction by the Bozizé forces. He also told the court about the atrocities committed by his captors during the “38 days of hell” when they held him hostage.

“I saw people being tortured and beaten up. I saw looting. I saw massacres,” said Mr. Ndouba.

The trial continues on Monday, September 17, 2012, with more testimony from Mr. Ndouba.