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Witness Absolves Bemba Troops of Murder and Pillaging

A witness in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba on Friday laid the blame for murders and pillaging committed in Bangui on François Bozizé’s rebel forces. ‘Witness D04-09,’ a former soldier with the armed forces of the Central African Republic (CAR), said he was not aware of any crimes committed by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers.

He 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.”

“I believe that the rebels, seeing that we were moving ahead, begun to shoot haphazardly, and the stray bullets hit civilians,” he explained. His unit took the bodies to the morgue at the local hospital.

The witness said Boy-Rabé was a ghost town, with front doors to houses broken down and personal belongings “scattered about outside.” A few residents had barricaded themselves in their homes. A similar situation greeted ‘Witness D04-09’ and his unit when they reached PK12, a suburb on Bangui.

“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.

In October 2002, Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops were invited into the neighboring country to help its president fight off an armed insurgency. Although Mr. Bemba was not in the conflict country with the troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and pillaged, he is on trial because prosecutors charge that he should bear responsibility for not having restrained or punished the soldiers that committed the alleged crimes.

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.

“They were familiar with the town of Bangui. MLC soldiers who had come over were not familiar with the town and didn’t go out on their own,” he said. He added that the “shoeshiners” could speak the local language Sango, whereas Mr. Bemba’s fighters could not.

Yesterday, the witness 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.

Today, the witness also described how the Bozizé rebels tortured him and other members of his group following their capture in an ambush. He said the rebels killed three soldiers from his unit.

“The Congolese [soldiers] were tortured by using padlocks to lock their lips. When they learned that I was the commander of the unit, I was tortured badly,” said the witness. The rebels abandoned him for dead.

“I was bleeding from my privates and my ears. They took all my military clothes as well as my shoes. All I had left was my underwear. The T-shirt I was wearing was covered in blood,” said the witness.

In addition to going by a court given pseudonym, ‘Witness D04-09’ testified with protective measures including image and voice distortion and the frequent use of private session in order to keep his identify secret. His evidence is being heard from an undisclosed location by way of video link.

Hearings continue on Monday, June 17.