This week, two witnesses who testified in the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) seemed to exonerate his fighters from responsibility for the atrocities committed during a conflict in 2002-2003. The defense witnesses blamed the crimes on rebel fighters of the group led by Francois Bozizé, which went on to capture power in March 2003.
‘Witness D04-23,’ a former member of the Bozizé force that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia fought against, said he did not hear of any crimes committed by the accused’s militia. Under questioning by defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, the witness stated that he heard of many cases of rape perpetrated by the Bozizé rebels during their campaign to overthrow Central African Republic (CAR) president Ange-Félix Patassé.
“There was a great number of excesses where women were taken violently,” he said. He added that a member of his family was sexually assaulted but gave details of this incident in private session.
The account by this witness is at variance with prosecution claims that Mr. Bemba’s troops used rape as a weapon of war and committed widespread rapes in all areas where they were present.
Last June, a former soldier in the CAR army said his colleagues raped women whose husbands they suspected of supporting the rebels.
Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba is responsible for the rape, murder, and pillaging allegedly carried out by his militia. He denies that his troops committed the crimes.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-26’ also described as “excesses” the rape incidents that he learned about, which Bozizé rebels had allegedly committed between October 25 and October 30, 2002.
‘Witness D04-26’ also attributed acts of pillaging to the Bozizé rebels. He said that due to limited resources, the rebels were not being paid and had no food. This prompted them to “start stealing” from civilians.
‘Witness D04-23’ and ‘Witness D04-26’ testified concurrently before The Hague-based court via video link from an undisclosed location. The bulk of their testimony was heard in closed session.
During cross-examination by prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson, ‘Witness DO4-23’ said that he heard of crimes allegedly committed by forces loyal to Mr. Patassé. “Based on our intelligence, we were told that in the other camp they were looting, but we were not told if it was the Libyans, the Banyamulenge, or any other group,” said the witness.’ Banyamulenge was the local term used to refer to Mr. Bemba’s Congolese troops.
The witness said he heard of the arrival of the MLC on October 30, 2002. He said the rebels’ advance towards the capital Bangui was that day “met with strong resistance.”
“We were told of the arrival of the Banyamulenge reinforcements, Libyans, and several other groups including [Abdoulaye] Miskine’s troops,” recalled the witness.
However, the witness said he did not have details of the Congolese soldiers’ involvement in the conflict: “I did not fight alongside the Banyamulenge. At that time, they were our enemies.”
Both witnesses said the Bozizé rebels consisted of “a mix of people,” including former soldiers of the Central African armed forces, civilian recruits, and Chadian nationals. According to ‘Witness D0-23,’ these individuals spoke numerous languages, including the Central African dialect Sango, French, and Lingala – a language native to the Congo.
‘Witness D0-23’ said the Chadians were not fluent in French but a number of them spoke Sango. He explained that besides French, the former soldiers in the CAR army, some of whom had attended military training in Congo, spoke Sango and Lingala. He said the civilian recruits included immigrant workers from Congo commonly referred to as “shoe shiners” who spoke Sango, French, and Lingala.
Numerous prosecution witnesses have testified that they identified the perpetrators of the crimes as Mr. Bemba’s troops partly because they spoke Lingala.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-26’ denied suggestions by prosecutors that he received “promises” in exchange for giving evidence that implicates forces other than the MLC.
However, a document prosecutors presented to court showed that ‘Witness D04-26’ told Mr. Bemba’s lawyers that he had knowledge of the MLC’s five month’s intervention in the conflict country. Asked by prosecution lawyer Massimo Scaliotti why, in his four-day testimony, he did not give any evidence to that effect, the witness replied that during his initial contact with defense lawyers, he was being “cautious.”
“I did not have complete trust in them and was weary of saying certain things. Today I am in front of professionals, and I must speak the truth,” explained the witness.
“Have you been promised anything from anyone in exchange for your testimony to the court?” asked Mr. Scaliotti.
“Nobody has offered me anything,” ‘Witness D04-26’ answered.
Hearings continue on Monday, August 26.