Today, a former fighter under the rebellion led by deposed Central African Republic (CAR) president François Bozizé shifted some blame for atrocities committed in that country’s 2002-2003 conflict from war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s militia to the Bozizé rebels, who he said were undisciplined and brutalized civilians.
Testifying under the court-given name ‘Witness D04-56,’ he told judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that his colleagues committed rape, murder, and pillaging, and that during these marauding operations, they spoke the Congolese language Lingala.
“We would take money, shoes, clothing, TV sets, and such things, commit rape and kill people,” he said.
Defense lawyer Peter Haynes asked what languages the rebels spoke among themselves. French, Lingala, and the Central African dialect Sango, replied the witness.
Explaining the use of Lingala, the former Bozizé fighter said, “We used that language to commit those crimes because whenever we used it, the people of the CAR were ready to give up and comply much more easily.”
The witness said the crimes he testified about were committed in various towns including Damara, Boy-Rabé, Sibut, PK12, and Fu between October 2002, when the rebels initially attempted to grab power, and March 2003, when they captured the capital Bangui.
Mr. Bemba has been on trial at the ICC since November 2010 over crimes his Movement for the Liberation of Congo soldiers are alleged to have committed during the Central African conflict. He denies it was his soldiers who committed the crimes, instead blaming other armed groups that took part in the fighting.
The Congolese troops were in the neighboring country at the behest of its then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, who was faced with a coup attempt led by Mr. Bozizé, his erstwhile army chief.
A number of prosecution witnesses testified that the soldiers who committed the crimes were Congolese. These witnesses said they could tell the nationality of the unruly soldiers because they spoke the Congolese language rather than Sango which Central African nationals would have used.
‘Witness D04-56’ started testifying in Mr Bemba’s trial this morning. Judges granted him protective measures including image and voice distortion during public broadcasts of his testimony, as well as frequent use of private session in order to protect his identity. He is testifying by way of video link.
He said the Bozizé rebels were poorly equipped and looting “wasn’t anything out of the ordinary” but a “generalized” method of operation. They did not wear uniforms and had limited food provisions. The few vehicles they used belonged to Chadian nationals who fought alongside them. The rebels would therefore take whatever they could from civilians, ‘Witness D04-56’ said.
Some of the stolen property was sold back to the population “so that we could earn some money in order to survive,” the witness said. “Others took their goods back to the rebel headquarters … we even tried to find little carts to put our booty on.”
‘Witness D04-56’ gave details of the rape and murder incidents in closed session. He did not say whether or not Mr. Bemba’s soldiers were involved in any criminal activity.
The witness said the rebel movement had neither training facilities nor a code of conduct on discipline and how to deal with the civilian population. He said the group comprised of an unnamed number of defectors from the national army and more than 500 recruits who were only given “accelerated training in weapons handling.”
Tomorrow morning, the prosecution will start cross-examining ‘Witness D04-56.’