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Former CAR Soldiers Absolve Bemba’s Fighters, Blame Rebels For Atrocities

This week, four witnesses testified for Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese opposition leader who has been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since November 2010.

All witnesses are former soldiers in the army of the Central African Republic (CAR) and they testified via video link. Common to the testimony of the witnesses was that they were not aware of any crimes committed by the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops, who fought alongside Central African government soldiers during the 2002-2003 conflict.

Three of the witnesses said the crimes which were committed during this period were the handiwork of rebel forces that were commanded by François Bozizé. These witnesses fought in joint forces comprising of the Central African armed forces (FACA) and the MLC in the campaign against the insurgents. The fourth individual said that as part of the joint forces, the Congolese soldiers fell under the direct command of that country’s authorities and not Mr. Bemba.

For fear that the witnesses could be subjected to reprisal attacks if their identities were known to the public, the four former soldiers testified with their voices and faces distorted in the public broadcasts of their testimonies. They testified as ‘Witness D04-03,’ ‘Witness D04-04,’ ‘Witness D04-09,’ and ‘Witness D04-06.’

‘Witness D04-04’ described massacres of civilians by the Bozizé rebels. He said, “We saw dead bodies, torched houses and villagers who had been slaughtered.” He was describing the village of Sibut after government forces wrested it from rebel control.

He said when his unit reached the suburb of PK12, many civilians came forward to report abuses committed by the rebels. In Damara, the village chief told them about the looting and rapes the rebels had perpetuated. In Bossangoa, a priest told the government forces that the rebels had looted a cotton factory and church.

Defense lawyer Peter Haynes asked ‘Witness D04-04’ whether he was aware of crimes committed by loyalist forces in the areas where he was involved in combat.

“No, I have no knowledge of that,” replied the witness. He explained that his platoon, which comprised of government soldiers and fighters from Mr. Bemba’s group, was among the first to enter the towns as the rebels fled.

He also stated that there may have been “confusion” over the identity of the perpetrators of the crimes. ‘Witness D04-04’ said it was possible that crimes were committed by Central African soldiers who spoke Lingala, a language native to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“There was no way to distinguish between the Congolese and Central African soldiers because we were all wearing the same uniforms,” he said.

Prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli put it to the witness that the trial had previously heard evidence on weapons allegedly stolen by MLC fighters from Central African soldiers. Mr. Bifwoli said that according to this evidence, the Congolese soldiers then proceeded to undertake operations independently.

The prosecuting lawyer asked ‘Witness D04-04’ why his testimony contradicted this evidence.

The witness replied: “Do not underestimate the FACA. We wouldn’t just stand by and allow people who came to assist us to pillage from us. I can not imagine a Central African soldier tolerating such.”

Mr. Bemba denies that his troops committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during their involvement in the CAR conflict. He claims other groups involved in the fighting perpetuated the crimes.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner asked ‘Witness D04-04’ about testimony by another former government soldier, who told the trial that some loyalist forces carried out revenge attacks against civilians.

The witness said he was not aware of those attacks. “After we advanced, there was always a unit that settled in the towns to ensure the enemy did not return. Those who stayed behind might have done that,” he said.

On Thursday, Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson, a lawyer representing victims in the trial, presented to ‘Witness D04-04’ a statement from a previous witness who was an inhabitant of Sibut. The unnamed individual stated that Mr. Bemba’s troops raped girls, some of them as young as 10 years. These girls were reportedly seen running around the town naked and crying.

‘Witness D04-04’ maintained that residents of Sibut “warmly welcomed” the joint Congolese and FACA troops. “They were pleased to see us,” he added.

Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-03’ described a massacre at a cattle market in the country’s capital Bangui, which he said was carried out by a militia allied to the country’s armed forces. According to him, both the Bozizé rebels and the national army brutalized civilians during the conflict.

He said abuses committed by FACA soldiers were in retaliation for attacks carried out by rebels. He accused the rebels of raping, looting and murdering, with family members and supporters of then president Ange-Félix Patassé targeted by the insurgents.

According to the witness, FACA soldiers whose relatives were subjected to abuses by the rebels carried out the revenge attacks. He said one such attach was led by Colonel Abdoulaye Miskine at a cattle market in the PK13 suburb of Bangui.

“Most of the people selling cattle were Chadians. Miskine’s men shot at all the people that they thought were Chadians,” said the witness. He did not say how many people were wounded or killed during the shooting. This attack was carried out because there were Chadian nationals among the Bozizé rebel ranks.

Mr. Miskine, also known as Martin Koumtamadji, commanded a special unit independent of FACA, which was among the groups that helped Mr. Patassé fight the insurgents.

‘Witness D04-03’ said that he, along with other Central African soldiers, looted Mr. Bozizé’s residence, taking shoes, clothes, vehicles and weapons.

He stated that he was present during incidents of rape by FACA soldiers. He said the rapes angered him. “That wasn’t the reason for us being there. Our goal was to free Central Africans, not to rape our sisters,” said the witness.

“Did you see any MLC troops involved in the commission of crimes?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.

“No, I never saw that,” replied the witness.

For his part, ‘Witness D04-09,’ who completed his testimony on Monday, reiterated his earlier testimony that it was the Bozizé rebels who committed crimes. In his testimony last week, ‘Witness D04-09’ said the rebels committed murders, rapes and pillaging in towns such as Boy-Rabé as they advanced towards the capital.

‘Witness D04-09’ said they also perpetuated “massive destruction” in the days following their capture of power on March 15, 2003. He said fleeing residents stated that they fled the town because the Bozizé rebels were shooting indiscriminately. The witness said he was not aware of any crimes committed by the MLC troops.

‘Witness D04-06,’ who started testifying in the trial on Friday morning, said General André Mazzi, who was in charge of commanding operations against rebels, issued orders, including to the top-most commander of Mr. Bemba’s forces.

This witness said General Mazzi reported to General Ferdinand Bombayake, the commander of the Central African presidential guard. General Bombayake reported directly to president Patassé.

“Most of the instructions from the General [Mazzi] came from the president. I would listen to the general giving instructions,” the witness said.

‘Witness D04-06’ also said that “from time to time,” General Bombayake issued direct orders to Mustafa Mukiza, the overall commander of Mr. Bemba’s troops deployed in the conflict country. However, added the witness, “Andre Mazzi was in communications with Mustafa at all times.”