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Unavailability of Witnesses Continues to Dog Bemba’s Trial

A failure to get defense witnesses to The Hague in time or to set up video link facilities in African countries where they are based has continued to slow down the presentation of evidence by lawyers for Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The trial of the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who has been in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2008, has seen persistent interruptions to hearings because scheduled witnesses are often unavailable to give evidence.

By next week, when hearings are expected to resume, it will be three weeks since the last witness testified in the trial that opened in November 2010. Hearings scheduled for last week and this week have been called off.

Only 19 witnesses have testified for Mr. Bemba since the start of the defense case last August. At the time, it had been expected that all defense witnesses would have completed testifying by July this year. The defense has this month cut from 63 to 50 the number of witnesses it intends to call.

Mr. Bemba, an opposition leader in Congo, is battling charges of failing to discipline his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers, who prosecutors allege committed rape, murder, and pillaging during 2002 and 2003. He denies the charges, stating that authorities in the Central African Republic, where his forces were deployed at the time, had the command and control responsibility over those troops.

Most of the MLC soldiers who fought in the 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 because Mr. Bemba remains a leading opposition figure.

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. Moreover, the country has been in upheaval since François Bozizé, who became president in 2003, was deposed by rebels and fled to Cameroon in March 2013.

Those who have so far testified for the defense include three experts, crime-based witnesses, and former MLC insiders. Defense lawyers have previously cited uncooperative state authorities, fear of reprisal attacks, and the vulnerability of a number of witnesses, some of whom could incriminate themselves during testimony, as difficulties faced in getting their witnesses to appear before the court.

Last September, ‘Witness D04-07’ testified for three days then disappeared from the court before completing his testimony. ‘Witness D04-11,’ who was scheduled to testify next, did not board the plane to The Hague and was reported untraceable.

In the face of challenges to get Africa-based witnesses to The Hague, judges Sylvia Steiner, Kuniko Osaki, and Joyce Aluoch last October ordered the defense to first produce those defense witnesses based in Europe who did not face any difficulties in appearing before the chamber. Once those witnesses completed testifying, the defense again reported challenges in securing the appearance of its other witnesses.

Difficulties in getting Africa-based witnesses to Europe have also prompted the court to consider hearing their evidence from the chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. The defense witnesses who have testified over recent months have all given evidence remotely via video link.

Defense lawyers have stated that applications for government authorization have been made for some of the outstanding witnesses that required it. However, cooperation with these requests had been “painfully slow or non-existent.” But other witnesses are based in countries where the ICC has not concluded arrangements and negotiations required to establish video link facilities.

The trial is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, June 5.

 

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