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Bemba’s Court Martial Trials Under Scrutiny

The operating procedures of the court martial set up by Jean-Pierre Bemba has today remained the focus of scrutiny by judges, the prosecution, and lawyers representing victims in the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

During today’s hearing, the methods used by the court martial to try and convict seven soldiers of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) accused of committing crimes in the Central African Republic (CAR) came under keen examination during the questioning of a former member of the court martial.

Prosecutors at the ICC – where Mr. Bemba faces war crimes and crimes against humanity – have suggested that the court martial trials were stage-managed and that the tribunal trying the soldiers was a sham. Mr. Bemba, a former senator and vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, denies those charges, asserting that once he heard that his soldiers were behaving badly, he had them investigated and prosecuted by an independent and competent court martial.

Most of today’s questioning of ‘Witness D04-016’ was based on a report signed by the court martial members, in which they detailed cases of soldiers tried and convicted.

Prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli noted that the court martial had not called any witnesses to testify at the trials, and the convicted soldiers did not testify in their own defense.

“Were there statements taken from anyone else other than the accused?” asked Mr. Bifwoli.

The witness replied, “I don’t remember statements from anyone else in this case.” He explained that investigating officers were unable to travel to Bangui to take statements from witnesses, as fighting was raging in the Central African capital.

Mr. Bifwoli asked whether the witness was aware of any court martial verdict that was appealed. “For the accused to appeal, they have the right to know the evidence upon which they were convicted… from the decision, it’s not possible for the accused to know what evidence was relied upon to convict them,” he said.

‘Witness D04-016’ said he was not aware of any appeals lodged by the convicted soldiers. He added, however, that shortly after the conviction of the soldiers, a transitional government was instituted and under the agreement setting it up, “it was the responsibility of the transitional government to deal with all decisions and case files that had been dealt with by belligerent groups” including the MLC.

At the time of their involvement in the neighboring country’s conflict, the MLC was a rebel group fighting to overthrow the Congolese government. Under a 2003 peace deal, Mr. Bemba became one of the country’s vice presidents, and his troops were integrated into the national army.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner also asked the witness some questions. She pointed out that most of the accused soldiers were interrogated by prosecution investigators in the middle of the night. Further, she said, the investigations report was sent to the court martial on December 3, 2002, the hearing took place two days later and the decision on all the accused was issued on December 7.

She also said no evidence was brought before the judges yet all the accused pleaded not guilty. “In your view, was that a regular procedure?” asked Judge Steiner.

The witness responded that it was normal for court martial trials in the DRC to move that fast. “Before the prosecution, the case file had been investigated and the court had received it with a view of ruling on it,” he said.

Judge Steiner then asked the witness whether it was normal procedure for a court martial to issue a decision on a Saturday, in front of local and international media. The witness responded that Saturday was a normal working day in Congo, so it was not unusual for the court martial to sit on this day. The witness has previously stated that court martial hearings were open to the public.

For her part, Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a victims’ lawyer, suggested that the 48 hours time limit for appealing court martial verdicts was not sufficient to enable those convicted to make appeals. She also said the court martial should have sought more information before deciding on the cases of the seven soldiers.

Tomorrow morning, Ms. Douzima-Lawson will continue to question ‘Witness D04-016.’