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Former Central African Soldiers Defend Conduct of Bemba’s Fighters

This week, two former soldiers with the armed forces of the Central African Republic (FACA) testified in defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese opposition leader on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Both witnesses testified under pseudonyms and via video link from undisclosed locations.

A third witness, who completed his testimony this week, was formerly a military officer with the military branch of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the group Mr. Bemba founded. He testified about command and control systems of the group, particularly during the first deployment of its contingent in a neighboring country during 2001.

The former MLC officer testified that all orders he received while he commanded the Congolese contingent deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital Bangui, came from General François Bozizé, who was the chief of staff of the FACA and the operations commander of the counter-insurgency campaign. Testifying under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-18,’ he stated that there was no means of communication between Mr. Bemba, who was located several hundreds of kilometers away from Bangui, and the MLC soldiers.

Prosecutors questioned ‘Witness D04-18’ about the variance between his testimony and the account Mr. Bemba gave in his book. Whereas Mr. Bemba claimed in the book that he made an order to his fighters deployed in the CAR during 2001, the witness testified that the group’s commander-in-chief never made any such order.

“So you disagree each time Mr. Bemba says ‘I ordered’?” asked prosecuting lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye, while referring to the book.

The witness responded, “At the time of my travel to Bangui, I never had any direct contact with Mr. Bemba. I was working with a walkie-talkie given to me by FACA. I didn’t have any direct contact with Mr. Bemba, and I didn’t receive any direct orders from him.”

‘Witness D04-18′ said the Congolese opposition leader was extremely busy during 2002 and 2003, the period when ICC prosecutors claim he was aware of his troops’ crimes against civilians but took no action. “He simply did not have the time to monitor the situation in Bangui,” the witness said.

‘Witness D04-18′ also stated that according to the MLC’s chain of command, responsibility for military discipline fell under the chief of general staff rather than with Mr. Bemba.

The prosecution charges that the Congolese forces deployed in the CAR during 2002 and 2003 committed rape, murder, and pillaging. Furthermore, the prosecution contends that while Mr. Bemba effectively acted as a military commander and had effective authority and control over the troops that allegedly committed these crimes, he “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.”

Mr. Bemba denies he had the capacity to command his troops who were deployed outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was based. He also says any of the numerous armed forces active in the conflict could have committed the crimes that prosecutors blame on his fighters.

Meanwhile, former Central African soldiers ‘Witness D04-02’ and ‘Witness D04-09’ placed blame for the crimes committed against civilians on the Bozizé rebels.

“General Bozizé and his soldiers were the ones responsible for the paralysis of the neighborhoods in northern Bangui,” said ‘Witness D04-02.’

‘Witness D04-02’ said the Bozizé rebels committed murders, rapes, and pillaging. “They took vehicles, domestic appliances, doors of houses were forced open, and people were killed. It was known by everybody,” he said. Moreover, “massive destruction also happened” in the days following the rebels’ capture of power on March 15, 2003.

This witness stated that although he was not an eyewitness to these crimes, he saw dead bodies, some of them of civilians and others of soldiers, lying around the city. He also heard accounts by members of the public about rapes and pillaging.

Another former Central African military officer who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-09’ recalled that at the start of operations to drive the rebels from Bangui, his unit saw corpses in Boy-Rabé town, which appeared to have been lying around for days. The corpses included those of “young boys, approximately 13 or 15 years of age, and a woman with her child.” The Bozizé rebels had occupied the town.

“I believe that the rebels, seeing that we were moving ahead, begun to shoot haphazardly, and the stray bullets hit civilians,” he explained.

“Did anybody from your unit kill those people or loot those houses?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.

The witness answered that the corpses had been lying around for two or three days. Furthermore, the houses had been ransacked before his unit arrived in the area.

‘Witness D04-09’ testified that when Mr. Bemba’s soldiers arrived at his army camp, they were paired up with the Central African soldiers before joint counter-insurgency operations started. He said a Central African soldier who “was very familiar with the hills and paths that had to be taken in the operations,” commanded each group comprising foreign and local solders. The witness said General Ferdinand Bombayake of the CAR army was the overall commander of all operations.

Under cross-examination by prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson, ‘Witness D04-09’ explained that during their two-week stay in PK12, they heard complaints of soldiers looting civilians’ property. However, following investigations and the arrest of some suspects, it was “realized” that Congolese immigrants, who had been doing odd jobs in Bangui before the outbreak of fighting, were the perpetrators. Commonly referred to as “shoeshiners,” those individuals had allegedly acquired military uniforms and weapons.

The trial continues on Monday, June 17.