After a three weeks’ hiatus, the trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba resumed today at the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the testimony of the sixth witness testifying in the defense of the war crimes accused.
The witness, who went by the court-given pseudonym ‘Witness D04-50’ is a former staff of the Presidential Guard, also known as the USP, of the Central African Republic (CAR). He testified with protective measures, including the distortion of his voice and image during public re-transmissions of his testimony. Most of his evidence was given in closed session.
Over the last three weeks, hearings in the trial which started in November 2010 were suspended as the witnesses who had been lined up to testify were not available to give evidence. One of the witnesses disappeared from the court-provided accommodation before completing his testimony. He had testified for three days. Another scheduled witness did not travel to The Hague to commence his testimony and disappeared without a trace.
‘Witness D04-50’ said during his brief moments in open session that members of Mr. Bemba’s militia group, who were deployed in the 2002-2003 conflict in the CAR, wore the same uniforms as the USP. “It was the same uniform we wore – with green berets. They received the uniforms from the presidential guard,” he said, adding that the Congolese soldiers received the uniforms upon arrival in the conflict country.
He explained that rebel forces led by François Bozizé arrived in Bangui, the capital of the CAR, on October 25, 2002. They occupied the city and neighboring provinces for five days until forces loyal to then president Ange-Félix Patassé – who were backed by the MLC – started a counter-offensive on October 30, 2002.
Some previous witnesses, including those who testified for the prosecution, told the trial that the USP, or presidential guard, was the only one of the Central African military units that worked with the MLC while they were deployed in the conflict.
Asked by defense lawyer Peter Haynes how he knew the insurgents were occupying these areas, the witness responded: “We had means of communication – radio – and our chief informed us because he was in direct contact with the chief of staff who gave positions of the enemy. I held the walkie-talkie, so I heard the information.”
In October 2002, Mr. Bemba, the MLC commander-in-chief, sent his troops to the neighboring country to assist Patassé’s loyalist forces beat back the Bozizé rebellion. The rebels captured power in March 2003. Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to control or punish his troops as they allegedly raped, killed, and looted against civilians during their five month presence in the conflict country.
Mr. Bemba has denied all five charges against him. He argues that any of the numerous armed groups active in the armed conflict could have committed the crimes he has been charged with.
The trial continues tomorrow with the cross-examination of ‘Witness D04-50’ by the prosecution.