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Prosecution Questions Competence of MLC Court Martial

Today, the prosecution questioned the fairness of trials conducted by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), suggesting that suspects were not given sufficient legal assistance. Moreover, the prosecution, which was cross-examining a former member of the court martial,  questioned the legal qualifications of some members of the court.

Prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli asked the witness, who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-016,’ whether he studied law. The witness responded that 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. Moreover, added the witness, presiding judges at court martial trials were career magistrates.

However, Mr. Bifwoli claimed some of the individuals who sat on the court martial were not qualified. He also questioned why accused soldiers did not have more than one lawyer.

“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, following objections by Mr. Bemba’s lawyers about the relevance of his questioning. The prosecuting lawyer also said 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 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) 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 civilians in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003.

The MLC were in that country to assist its then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a coup attempt. Mr. Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all five charges against him. 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.

Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-016’ dismissed suggestions by Mr. Bifwoli that he would not say anything to harm Mr. Bemba because, according to the prosecuting lawyer, the witness still owed allegiance to the accused. The witness replied that he had taken an oath obliging him to tell the truth to the court.

Judges granted ‘Witness D04-016’ protective measures in order to conceal his identity. His evidence is being heard with his image and voice distorted as well as the frequent use of private session.

Tomorrow morning, the prosecution continues to cross-examine ‘Witness D04-016.’