This week, a Congolese soldier who served in a contingent accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity defended the discipline of the group, whose commander-in-chief Jean-Pierre Bemba is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He said the accused’s fighters were not even present in some areas where prosecutors say the crimes were committed.
‘Witness D04-45’ said soldiers of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) were not deployed in the towns of Bossembélé and Bozoum during December 2002. The witness said this was after prosecuting lawyer Eric Iverson showed him documents stating that the accused’s fighters committed crimes in the two towns. He also said no soldiers from his group were deployed in towns of Boy-Rabé, Fou, and Mongoumba, which are also areas where prosecutors say Mr. Bemba’s soldiers committed crimes.
The witness was a member of the MLC’s 28th battalion, one of the two that Mr. Bemba sent to the Central African Republic (CAR) in October 2002 to help the country’s president, Ange-Félix Patassé, fight insurgents. Prosecutors allege that the accused’s fighters committed rapes, killings, and pillaging, and he failed to stop or to punish them. He denies the charges.
‘Witness D04-45’, who was the only witness to testify this week, said he was not aware of any crimes committed by his colleagues.
“Did the Movement for the Liberation of Congo commit any rapes, murders, or pillage at all?” asked Mr. Iverson.
“I can not answer that question in general terms. However, regarding my group, I did not learn of any such cases,” replied the witness, whose testimony started on Wednesday last week.
‘Witness D04-45’ testified that rebel forces led by François Bozizé were the perpetrators of crimes in the town of Point Kilomètre 12 (PK12), where they had their headquarters before they were driven out at the end of October 2002.
The witness also stated that if acts of violence had been carried out, General André Mazzi of the Central African armed forces (FACA) “would have arrested them and prevented them from carrying out further crimes” because he was their operations commander. He stated that upon arrival in the conflict country, the Congolese troops were “integrated” into the national army for joint operations commanded by Central African officers.
During cross-examination, the date on which Mr. Bemba’s troops arrived on Central African territory was the focus of the prosecution’s questioning. Mr. Iverson said the troops arrived in the conflict country two days earlier than the date given by the witness. He presented documents, purportedly authored by members of Mr. Bemba’s militia, which showed soldiers from the group were deployed into the conflict before the October 28, 2002 date given by ‘Witness D04-45.’
The witness had previously told the court that seven to 10 soldiers from the MLC’s 28th battalion were sent to the conflict country on October 26, 2002 for purposes of “assessing the situation in the field” but returned to Congo the same day. “Nobody stayed in Bangui on the 26th,” he said, referring to the Central African capital.
However, a situation report Mr. Iverson presented to the witness mentioned the arrival of 151 MLC soldiers in Bangui as of October 26, 2002. Dated on the morning of the same day, the message was purportedly sent by the commander of the 28th battalion to the group’s staff headquarters in the town of Gbadolite in Congo. In another message presented by the prosecution, the battalion commander on October 27, 2002 reports a calm situation and “high morale” among his troops.
“Wouldn’t it be strange if an operations message was coming from Bangui if the 28th battalion were not even there?” Mr. Iverson asked.
“On the 27th, no soldier of the 28th battalion was on the other side. Late at night on the 28th is when they went across,” responded the witness.
Subsequent questions on this matter were put to the witness in closed session. The witness testified via video link from the Congolese capital Kinshasa. In addition to judges granting him protective measures including the use of an in-court pseudonym and his voice and image being distorted from the public, most of his evidence was heard in closed session.
Under questioning by victims lawyer Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, the witness absolved Mr. Bemba of any command and control responsibilities over the 28th battalion during the entirety of its five months intervention in the neighboring country.
“The commander of the 28th battalion did not receive any orders from Mr. Bemba whilst we were in the CAR,” said the witness.
In denying the charges against him, Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of Congo, contends that any of the armed groups that were active in the conflict country could have committed the crimes he is charged with. Besides, it is his defense that none of his troops were deployed into the CAR before October 30, 2002. Several prosecution witnesses have testified to having witnessed or experienced acts of violence at the hands of the MLC as early as October 25, 2002. They identified the perpetrators as Congolese based on the language they spoke – Lingala, a language native to the Congo.
‘Witness D04-45’ also recounted how Central African armed authorities provided communications equipment to the foreign troops and described joint operations between the Congolese fighters and FACA. The witness said the joint operations to drive back insurgents were coordinated through a radio network manned by Central African operators.
Meanwhile, on Thursday the witness denied that he carried into the courtroom a “script” to guide his testimony. Rather, ‘Witness D04-45’ said he wrote down the notes in order “to be able to refer to something” as he was testifying.
Furthermore, the witness stated that during the familiarization process prior to the start of his testimony, court officials did not provide him any instructions to the effect that he should not appear with notes.
“I am a military officer and whenever I attend a meeting or discuss something, it is necessary for me to take down notes. In the waiting room here, I started taking notes and when I got into the courtroom, the officer was here, I was not hiding those notes, and no one told me not to have notes,” he said.
Among the notes written down were details of his contact with Mr. Bemba’s lawyers, crimes perpetuated by members of Mr. Bozizé’s rebel force “most of whom spoke Lingala,” and the provision of communications equipment to the foreign fighters by the central African army.
Other notes related to the “scouting mission” MLC soldiers made to the conflict country on October 26, 2002, the arrival of the Congolese fighters, and the command structures of the joint forces comprising the accused’s soldiers and the CAR armed forces.
“Some of the information you wrote down happens to be the same issues that are in dispute in this trial. You would have no way of knowing they were in dispute unless someone is briefing you. Who was it?” asked Mr. Iverson.
“I wrote those notes. Nobody gave me any information,” replied the witness. “I saw, and I was familiar with what happened.”
“Were you paid to say anything you have said in your testimony?” continued Mr. Iverson.
The witness replied, “I did not receive any money from anyone.”
During re-direct questioning on Friday, the witness stated that he wrote down the notes in a “closed and restricted” environment in the presence of a court appointed security official. Before entering the courtroom, officials only informed him that he could not enter with a mobile phone.
Next week, the court will be on its spring break. Hearings are scheduled to resume on April 8.