François Bozizé’s rebels terrorized civilians in some Central African Republic (CAR) towns that were under the control of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops, the International Criminal Court (ICC) heard on Friday.
“The crimes were committed by the rebel fighters while they were there, and they continued to commit crimes even after our departure,” stated ‘Witness D04-56,’ who served as a soldier in the Bozizé-led rebellion.
He said the rebels occupied various towns between October 25, 2002 and November 3, 2002, then the Central African army, with the support of Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops, took control of the towns.
However, prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli wondered how rebel soldiers would have risked their lives to return to an area controlled by their opponents in order to commit crimes.
“When a soldier loots and commits abuses, it is during a lull in fighting,” responded the witness. “Others can do this during the night after disguising themselves.”
‘Witness D04-56’ was testifying in Mr. Bemba’s trial at the ICC for the third day. He has previously told the court that undisciplined Bozizé rebels committed rape, murder, and pillaging, and that during these marauding operations, they spoke the Congolese language Lingala. The witness is testifying via video link from an unknown location and was granted protective measures in order to conceal his identity.
Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has denied that he had effective command and control over his troops whom prosecutors charge committed rapes, murder and pillaging during their deployment in the neighboring country. He says it was Central African authorities who commanded his troops deployed in the conflict. Moreover, he argues that any other armed groups that were active in the conflict could have committed the alleged crimes.
Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner also posed a question to the witness. “We have heard testimony in this court that the population of Damara were supporters of Bozizé and yet you say that the rebels committed crimes against them?” asked the judge.
The witness replied: “Each time this town was attacked [by the rebels], the people would flee. I can’t say that the people there were in favor of one side or against one side. They had no choice.”
Mr. Bifwoli presented to court a transcript of a February 2003 audio report by Radio France International (RFI), in which a journalist stated that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers were committing crimes in Damara and Sibut towns after driving out the rebels. Eyewitnesses interviewed by the journalist described the Bozizé fighters as welcoming and treating civilians “like brothers.” On the other hand, the MLC were described as “perpetrators of massacres.”
Mr. Bifwoli asked why the witnesses interviewed by RFI were able to distinguish between Bozizé’s forces and the Congolese fighters, and to attribute the crimes to the latter. The witness replied that perhaps there may have been “confusion” on the part of the witnesses as to the identity of the perpetrators of the crimes. He maintained that his testimony related to events that he witnessed and sometimes took part in.
‘Witness D04-56’ continues his testimony on Monday morning.