A witness testifying on behalf of Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday stated that media reports about crimes allegedly committed by the accused’s militia were based on rumors rather than field visits. He also said it would have been “irrational” for soldiers belonging to the accused’s militia to commit some of the crimes prosecutors accuse them of.
‘Witness D04-21’ said a report on Radio France International (RFI), which mentioned the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers among the perpetrators of crimes, was based on information received via “anonymous” phone calls. “They did not go out to the field. When the MLC delegation arrived in the field, a different type of information was forthcoming,” he stated.
Prosecuting lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga played an RFI audio broadcast that aired on February 18, 2003, two days before a delegation of the MLC visited Sibut in the Central African Republic (CAR) to investigate reports that the group’s soldiers were committing human rights violations. The broadcast mentioned Mr. Bemba’s troops as perpetrators of crimes in a number of towns, including Sibut.
“How is it that when RFI journalists conducted investigations a few days prior, and later an MLC delegation arrives with RFI journalists in their midst, the same information is not gathered?” asked Mr. Badibanga.
The witness stated that the journalists were only talking about information reaching them, but they had not gone to the field to ascertain reports of crimes being committed. He explained that despite the presence of armed MLC soldiers in the background, the interviewees in separate RFI video footage taken at the time of the delegation’s visit to Sibut expressed themselves freely and even mentioned some abuses committed by the Congolese soldiers.
The witness, a former member of the MLC, is testifying via video link from an undisclosed location. He was granted protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym and image and voice distortion, in order to conceal his identity.
Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is on trial for allegedly failing to rein in his soldiers who brutalized Central African civilians. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity, which prosecutors say were committed during 2002 and 2003.
The witness also said it was inconceivable that soldiers on duty could have turned to destroying birth certificates while they looted civilian’s homes. He was responding to excerpts of the testimony by an undisclosed witness who appeared before the court and talked about events in Sibut.
In extracts of that individual’s testimony, which were read in court today, he stated that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers looted his house and tore his children’s birth certificates. He also stated that the troops shot dead one of the town’s residents, raped girls as young as ten years, and forcibly abducted others for two or three days.
“When you were asked why the MLC conducted investigations in Sibut, you said it was in relation to rumors. Would that [individual’s testimony] be the sort of rumors?” asked Mr. Badibanga.
“The rumors did not relate to what you just read out,” replied the witness. “I think that testimony that talks of destruction of birth certificates is rather questionable.”
In his earlier testimony, the witness has stated that Mr. Bemba ordered a commission to probe his soldiers’ conduct after receiving a report alleging human rights abuses. ‘Witness D04-21’ said that members of the commission traveled to Sibut and interviewed a number of its residents, none of whom reported any crimes committed by MLC troops, besides the stealing of cloth and bicycles by four soldiers.
Journalists who accompanied the delegation recorded the interviews. The video footage, in which residents of Sibut expressed gratitude to the MLC for “liberating them” has been the focus of the testimony by ‘Witness D04-21’ since he took the witness stand on Monday.
Hearings are scheduled to continue tomorrow morning, with further testimony from ‘Witness D04-21.’