The one witness who testified this week in Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) served in a senior position in the group the accused led. Testifying under a pseudonym and via video link from an undisclosed location, he said the accused had an “elementary” military background that made it impossible for him to individually make major decisions related to military operations. He claimed the accused had no control over troops deployed for five months in the Central African armed conflict.
Furthermore, ‘Witness D04-21’ defended the discipline among the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops and said a commission of inquiry the accused formed to probe the conduct of his fighters absolved the troops of any major crimes.
Mr. Bemba stands accused of failing to stop or punish his soldiers, who allegedly carried out mass rapes, killings, and looting in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. Although he was not personally in the conflict country, as commander-in-chief of the group, he is being tried for failing to rein in his troops. He denies the charges.
At the start of his evidence, ‘Witness D04-21’ spoke about the command structures of the MLC and the military credentials of its leader.
“The planning of operations was not done by an individual. It was done by the general staff, an organ which has a leader – the chief of general staff. It was team work,” he said. Testifying in relation to the group’s operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he stated that it was the chief of general staff who communicated orders to battalion commanders on the ground.
The witness said the military rank of Major General given to Mr. Bemba was honorary given his status as the group’s political leader and not because of his military knowledge or experience.
While prosecutors claim Mr. Bemba’s fighters were ill-trained, undisciplined, and unaware of the militia’s code of conduct, the witness said soldiers at all ranks were well trained. He said some of the officers in the group had trained at renowned military academies such as Sandhurst in the U.K. and West Point in the U.S.
He testified that the group’s code of conduct was their “most well known” document, and it was communicated during training.
“There was awareness raising during training. A moral speech or lecture was given to them repeating the provisions of the code,” stated the witness. This was to ensure “good relations” between the militia and civilians in the areas it controlled.
‘Witness D04-21’ said residents of the Central African town of Sibut offered “genuinely heartfelt” thanks to the accused’s fighters after they “liberated” the town from rebel control.
Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba screened footage in which residents of the town described brutal crimes suffered at the hands of rebel forces led by François Bozizé, who occupied the town before they were dislodged by the MLC.
‘Witness D04-21’ said the footage was filmed in the presence of an MLC “ambassador” who had gone to the war zone to establish the truth in rumors that the accused’s militia had carried out rapes, murders, and pillaging. He said Mr. Bemba formed the commission to probe the conduct of his fighters immediately after receiving a report from a human rights organization alleging that his troops were committing crimes.
“The delegation in Sibut did not tell us of any case of murder,” stated the witness. The delegation did not find any rape cases either, he added. Rather, the delegation reported that four MLC soldiers had been implicated in the theft of cloth and bicycles.
The witness said that as indicated in the video footage, allegations that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers were the perpetrators of crimes in Sibut were untrue. In the footage, the mayor of Sibut stated that he and fellow residents had fled their homes for three months during a rebel occupation of the town that begun in October 2002.
The mayor recounted numerous verbal complaints he had received from civilians of looting, rape, and murders committed by Mr. Bozizé’s rebel fighters. Also in the footage, giving similar accounts to that of the mayor, were the vicar of a seminary and other unnamed residents. All of them expressed their thanks to “loyalist forces” comprised of the MLC and the Central African army for driving out the rebels and helping them to return to their normal lives.
Sibut is one of the locations where prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops committed widespread crimes.
Asked by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga why Sibut was the only location the delegation visited, ‘Witness D04-21’ said he did not know what informed the choice in location.
Mr. Badibanga also asked why journalists were invited to be part of the mission. The witness replied, “I believe that the main motivation for the presence of both local and international press was to gather correct information without in any way tainting it.”
‘Witness D04-21’ said a report on Radio France International (RFI), which mentioned the 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.
“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.
On the final day of his testimony, the witness said that Mr. Bemba “lost authority” over his troops once he put them at the disposal of Central African authorities. He stated that had the accused exercised any power over his troops, it would have “called into question” the agreement he had reached with Ange-Félix Patassé, president of the CAR at the time.
“The conditions of the agreement were that Central African authorities would provide logistical resources, the operations command would be the responsibility of CAR officers, and the management of discipline of the troops would also be the responsibility of CAR authorities,” said the witness.
He added that this agreement was reached following a verbal discussion between the now deceased Patassé and Mr. Bemba, when the former was requesting for Congolese troops to help his campaign against insurgents.
The trial continues next Monday with the testimony of a new witness.