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Prosecution Challenges Witness on Date Bemba’s Fighters Joined Conflict

Today, prosecutors challenged claims by a defense witness that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters did not enter the territory of the Central African Republic (CAR) until October 29, 2002. The prosecutors produced a document, which they claimed indicated the troops joined the conflict four days earlier than the date given by the witness.

Today, a former insider in the MLC, ‘Witness D04-49,’ testified for the second day in the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He insisted that whereas a small group of MLC fighters traveled to the conflict country on October 26, 2002, all of them returned to Congo the same day.

Those soldiers had gone to look into logistical and security preparations for deploying 1,500 soldiers in support of that country’s embattled president, Ange-Félix Patassé. That deployment, he said, was done on October 29 and 30, 2002.

Prosecuting lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga produced a document originating from Congolese judicial authorities, relating to the prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant Willy Bomengo, a member of that advance party. In the document, this soldier tells investigating officers that he was arrested on October 30, 2002 over allegations that he looted property in Bangui, capital of the CAR, on October 26, 2002.

Mr. Badibanga wondered whether, in the few hours the advance party spent in Bangui on October 26, Lieutenant Bomengo would have managed to do all the things the investigations report mentions that he did ahead of his arrest. These included alleged involvement in pillaging, conducting investigations on four Chadian nationals, including taking their statements and concluding they were innocent of charges not mentioned in court.

Furthermore, the report said that during this period, Lieutenant Bomengo confiscated pillaged goods and handed them to General Mustafa Mukiza, the overall commander of Mr. Bemba’s troops deployed in the CAR.

‘Witness D04-49’ said, “This was an intelligence officer being questioned and he was looking for a way to absolve himself” and that he may have backdated the events for his own reasons. The witness also questioned the authenticity of the document.

The witness stated that he attended meetings to prepare for the deployment of the MLC soldiers, with one such meeting having taken place on October 27, 2002. General Mukiza and the MLC chief of staff, Colonel Dieudonné Amuli, also attended this particular meeting. The witness insisted no troops were deployed before October 29.

The date of arrival of MLC fighters on Central African territory is a heavily contested issue in the trial. Prosecutors have blamed MLC fighters for crimes that various witnesses testified about, which were committed as early as October 25, 2002. However, the defense says Mr. Bemba deployed his troops into the conflict on October 29, and that therefore these crimes were committed by fighting groups other than the MLC.

Indeed, Mr. Bemba blames the atrocities committed during the October 2002-March 2003 conflict on the myriad militia groups involved in the fighting, including the faction led at the time by the country’s current president, François Bozizé. He says once he heard that some of his soldiers had committed crimes, he promptly investigated and prosecuted them and also asked the UN Secretary General to form an international commission of inquiry.

The prosecution continues to cross-examine ‘Witness D04-49’ tomorrow morning.