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MLC Court Martial Trials Dominate Bemba’s Trial

This week, testimony at the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba centered on the conduct of court martial proceedings against Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers accused of various offenses.

Two witnesses, both former members of the group led by the accused, gave evidence, bringing the number of witnesses to 14 who have testified for Mr. Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Judges granted ‘Witness D04-016’ and ‘Witness D04-066’ protective measures in order to conceal their identities.

‘Witness D04-016’ testified for four days about disciplinary procedures in the MLC, as well as trials conducted by the court martial. This witness was a military officer in the MLC and also sat on the court martial that tried seven soldiers accused of committing various offenses while they were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) in October 2002 to help the country’s president fight off insurgents.

He said Mr. Bemba set up a court martial in 2002 to uphold military discipline among his soldiers. Furthermore, the witness stated that discipline among MLC soldiers was “good” and in accordance with a strict code of conduct.

The court was presided over by a career magistrate, who had been appointed by Congolese authorities before Mr. Bemba’s group assumed administrative control over the territory. “It had jurisdiction over all MLC soldiers irrespective of rank,” said the witness.

He said while military courts in most countries do not have civilian members, Mr. Bemba’s group appointed civilian judicial officials, including the presiding judge, prosecutor, and registrar, to its court martial as there were not enough qualified military officers to sit on the military court.

The witness explained that frequent training sessions relating to the code of conduct were organized for all units, both at the frontline and operational levels. “Standards of discipline in the MLC were good. In some isolated cases, individuals failed to obey rules and that is why the court martial was set up to administer justice,” said the former insider.

‘Witness D04-16’ also said that hearings in the court martial were open to the public and judges played an impartial role. Individuals facing charges were represented by lawyers who participated in all proceedings against the suspects.

“After evidence and submissions were made, judges would conduct deliberations and via secret ballot decide on the sentence to be passed down for each suspect,” he said.

However, the prosecution questioned the fairness of the trials, suggesting that suspects were not given sufficient legal assistance. The prosecution also questioned the legal qualifications of some members of the court.

Prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli asked the witness whether he studied law. The witness said he took some law courses during his military training. Regarding the defense counsel that the court martial appointed for soldiers on trial, ‘Witness D0-016’ said this individual was fully qualified as a lawyer in accordance with the laws of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the trials were held.

“One of the critical issues in this trial was the rights of the accused and quality of the defense and its ability to perform its functions,” said Mr. Bifwoli. He added that it appeared as though individuals tried by the MLC court martial did not enjoy the right to adequately prepare their defense.

Furthermore, Mr. Bifwoli questioned the independence of the court martial. He presented a report from the chairman of the court martial to Mr. Bemba, in which the presiding judge detailed cases of soldiers tried and convicted, but the witness insisted the court martial was independent.

Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the DRC, is on trial for allegedly failing to enforce discipline among his troops. Prosecutors charge that he is criminally responsible for murder, rape, and pillaging committed by his troops against Central African civilians between October 2002 and March 2003.

According to ICC prosecutors, although Mr. Bemba’s militia tried some of its soldiers accused of committing crimes in the CAR, those trials were stage-managed and conducted by sham tribunals.

Mr. Bifwoli noted that the court martial had not called any witnesses to testify, and the seven convicted soldiers did not testify in their own defense.

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

‘Witness D04-16’ 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 the witness whether he 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. He added, however, that shortly after the conviction of the soldiers, a transitional government was instituted with the responsibility “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 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.

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.

Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-66’ took the witness stand on Friday but gave most of his evidence in private session. In the brief moments of open court, he recalled a visit by Mr. Bemba to Bangui.

“I didn’t see him myself but was informed he had come over and he spent approximately 45 minutes before going to Zongo and taking the airplane…everyone knew he was there,” said the witness.

The witness said that he was in Bangui between October 2002 and March 2003 and that that he had a liaison office in the Congolese town of Zongo, which lies along the border with the CAR. The witness said that during the time he stayed in Bangui, he did not transmit any information to Mr. Bemba, as “it wasn’t in my purview.”

The trial continues next Monday morning with further testimony from ‘Witness D04-66.’