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Bemba to Testify in His Own Defense

Jean-Pierre Bemba will testify in his own defense in his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to take the witness stand after the court’s summer judicial recess.

“He will be our last witness,” said defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, while addressing a status conference this morning.

At the conference, which discussed the timeline for completion of the defense case, Mr. Kilolo-Musamba estimated that the defense would conclude the presentation of its evidence around October of this year.

Mr. Bemba would be the third person to testify in his own defense at the ICC – after fellow Congolese nationals Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui. The first person tried by the court, Thomas Lubanga, chose not to take the witness stand.

There are 23 defense witnesses yet to testify, including Mr. Bemba, in the trial that commenced in November 2010. At the start of the defense case last August, defense lawyers stated that they planned to call 63 individuals who had “tangible knowledge” of the five month period during which the accused’s soldiers were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR).

At the time, the defense stated that it expected its witnesses to testify over a period of between one and two years. However, judges set July 19, 2013 as the expected completion date for presentation of the defense’s evidence.

In a May 10, 2013 filing, lawyers Mr. Kilolo-Musamba and Peter Haynes said that because of uncooperative authorities in three unnamed countries, they were unable to secure the appearance of some witnesses before the court. As such, they informed the chamber of their intention not to call thirteen of their scheduled witnesses.

Earlier this month, the defense dropped two other witnesses. ‘Witness D04-08’ would not be called due to undisclosed “ongoing and significant security concerns” surrounding him. The defense has not made any public comments regarding its decision to drop ‘Witness D04-17.’

This afternoon, Mr. Kilolo-Musamba stated that 10 of the upcoming defense witnesses were victims whose evidence was “absolutely crucial for the defense case.” However, they were based in a country where challenges were being experienced by the court’s registry in setting up video link facilities to enable the witnesses testify remotely.

A representative of the court’s registry said they had secured an agreement with the unnamed country in order to facilitate the testimony of these witnesses. Nevertheless, final preparations are required before video link testimony can commence, and those preparations will not be finalized until this August.

“Going by previous experience, from August 19, we need two more months to hear all defense witnesses,” said the defense lawyer. The court goes on its summer judicial recess from July 19 to August 12.

Prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga did not object to the proposal for judges to extend the timeline for the presentation of the defense evidence. However, he stated that some of the defense witnesses “should not have been called because they didn’t add anything [to the case].”

He argued that these individuals would be testifying about crimes committed by troops other than those from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), whose leader was not the one on trial. Lawyers representing victims in the trial also did not oppose the defense’s submission.

Mr. Bemba has denied charges of murder, rape, and pillaging arising from crimes allegedly committed by his MLC soldiers against Central African civilians during an armed conflict in 2002 and 2003.

For the presentation of their evidence, prosecutors called a total of 40 witnesses between November 2010 and March last year. Thereafter, five victims presented their views and concerns at the behest of judges

Judges today rejected suggestions by the defense that it should be allocated a time similar to that the prosecution took to present its case. Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said the prosecution was in a different position than the defense because the burden of proof lay with prosecutors. The judge also noted that it was the defense itself which decided to call up to 60 witnesses, 20 more than those the prosecution needed to prove its case.

However, Mr. Kilolo-Musamba said it was the court, not the defense, which was experiencing difficulties in getting witness to testify. “It is not the defense that contacts Heads of State, embassies that issue visas, passport authorities or contact local UN missions to use their premises for video link testimonies,” he said.

The other issues addressed during today’s status conference included the timeline and languages for preparation of closing briefs and oral closing statements. Judges said they would invite the parties and participants to make written submissions on these matters.

Judges also said they would make a ruling on the scheduling of upcoming defense witnesses after receiving further information from the defense and the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU).

The next defense witness is expected to start giving evidence on July 8, 2013.