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Witness Questioned About Bemba’s Battalion Deployed in CAR

Today, the sixteenth witness to testify on behalf of Congolese war crimes indictee Jean-Pierre Bemba was questioned about a military unit in the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the group the accused led.

‘Witness D04-45’ commenced his testimony at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday morning and testified almost entirely in closed session. In the brief moments of open court, defense lawyer Peter Haynes asked the witness what he knew about the MLC’s 28th battalion. The witness responded that the 28th battalion was part of a larger brigade and consisted of “around 925 men” split into various units.

He said soldiers belonging to this battalion were deployed in the towns of Libenge and Zongo, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of Mr. Bemba’s soldiers deployed in the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) had earlier been stationed at Zongo, which lies near the common border.

Subsequent questions about the battalion were put to the witness in closed session, making it impossible to know the purpose of this line of questioning. The witness testified via video link from a location the court did not make public.

In their opening statement at the start of the trial back in November 2010, prosecutors stated that two MLC contingents, including the 28th battalion, were deployed from Congo to the neighboring country in October 2002, and that their progression in the conflict country was marked by gang rapes, mass killings, and looting against the civilian population. Mr. Bemba denies that he knew his troops were committing crimes in the CAR during 2002 and 2003 but failed to stop and to punish them.

At the start of hearings this morning, presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner stated that ‘Witness D04-45’ had been granted in-court protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym, image and voice distortion, and frequent use of private session in order to protect his identity.

Witnesses that appear before the ICC may sometimes be at risk of reprisal attacks. In addition to protective measures being put in place to conceal their identities from the public, psychological support, counseling, and security mechanisms such as relocation are also employed by the court’s organs before, during, and after testimony.

Hearings are scheduled to continue tomorrow morning with further testimony from ‘Witness D04-45.’