Lawyers representing Jean-Pierre Bemba in his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) have reduced from 63 to 50 the number of witnesses they intended to call to testify for the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In a May 10, 2013 submission to judges, lawyers Aimé Kilolo-Musamba and Peter Haynes said because of uncooperative authorities in three unnamed countries, they were unable to secure the appearance of some witnesses before the court.
Most of the remaining witnesses resided in “Country 1” that required government authorization for them to testify. While applications for the required authorizations had been made, the lawyers said “cooperation with these requests has been painfully slow or non-existent.”
A second group of witnesses based in “Country 2” was unable to travel to the seat of the court for undisclosed reasons. Although the court’s Registry was arranging for these witnesses to testify via video link, defense lawyers said “no concrete plan or arrangement” was in place yet.
Meanwhile, in a third country where the remainder of the witnesses are based, arrangements and negotiations required to establish a video link facility were yet to be finalized. At least four weeks were required before video link testimony by these witnesses could commence.
Mr. Bemba has been on trial at the court based in The Hague since November 2010. Prosecutors charge that he failed to control his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers, who allegedly committed rape, murder, and pillaging between October 2002 and March 2003. The crimes were allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR), where the troops had gone to help then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a rebellion.
The prosecution presented its case over a period of 16 months, during which it called 40 witnesses. The first defense witness appeared last August and to-date, 19 witnesses have testified for the accused.
Mr. Bemba’s lawyers have repeatedly expressed their frustration at the unavailability of defense witnesses to give testimony, which has often stalled hearings. Most of the MLC soldiers who fought in the 2002-2003 conflict were integrated into the Congolese national army, in which many are still serving, some at senior level. Such soldiers would require authorization in order to travel out of Congo or to testify remotely. This authorization may not be easy to secure given that Mr. Bemba remains the leader of the opposition to Congolese president Joseph Kabila.
Furthermore, several soldiers from the Central African armed forces, who fought alongside the Bemba troops, are still in the service of their country or went into exile when Mr. Patassé was ousted in March 2003. Besides, the country has been in upheaval since François Bozizé, who became president in 2003, was deposed by rebels and fled to Cameroon two months ago.
The defense has accordingly notified the chamber of its intention not to call the following witnesses: ‘Witness D04-40,’ ‘Witness D04-63,’ ‘Witness D04-67,’ ‘Witness D05-46,’ and ‘Witness D04-61.’ Others are ‘Witness D04-12,’ ‘Witness D04-62,’ ‘Witness D04-20,’ ‘Witness D04-43,’ ‘Witness D042,’ ‘Witness D04-47,’ ‘Witness D04-28,’ and ‘Witness D04-23.’
Dropping these witnesses would help with “streamlining the evidence and allowing the defense to conclude its presentation of evidence in the most expeditious manner possible.” However, the defense lawyers stated that they reserved the right to add witnesses to the list of those dropped, depending on the progress made with the three countries.
Judges are yet to pronounce themselves on the defense’s submission. Meanwhile, hearings in the trial are scheduled to resume on Monday, May 20, 2013.