This week, a former bodyguard to Jean-Pierre Bemba and individuals who were subjected to violence during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) took the stand in defense of Mr. Bemba, who is on trial in The Hague.
While the former bodyguard said the accused was not in command of his troops during the conflict, the other witnesses said it was rebel fighters loyal to François Bozizé, and not Mr. Bemba’s troops, who committed atrocities against the civilian population.
Mr. Bemba, 50, is on trial for allegedly failing to discipline his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters, who prosecutors claim raped, murdered, and pillaged.
‘Witness D04-30’ testified that she was raped by the Bozizé rebels during October 2002. Her testimony on Friday was suspended due to her ill health and the poor quality of the sound that was being transmitted from the location where she was testifying from via video link.
Another Central African national, who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-29,’ said the rebels raped his wife when they arrived in his neighborhood on October 26, 2002. He said following a tip-off from a neighbor that rebels were holding his wife, he went to her rescue.
“Two men came toward me and asked me what I was doing outside at that time and who I was,” recalled the witness. “I was scared and didn’t say anything. It is then that they started kicking, slapping, and beating me.”
The witness said one of the assailants recognized him and asked his colleague to stop the beating. Once the witness managed to lift himself off the ground, he heard his wife crying and noticed three other men a few meters away holding her.
“I told the individual who recognized me that the lady in the hands of his friends was my wife. Then my wife started to explain that the three individuals had raped her,” recalled the witness. He said one of the men slapped his wife and the others hurled insults at her, saying she was lying.
“In what language did the men talk to you?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
“In Sango,” the witness replied, referring to a widely spoken language native to the CAR.
‘Witness D04-29’ recognized the perpetrators as CAR nationals who had joined the Bozizé rebellion and disclosed their names in closed session.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-36,’ also a Central African, testified that the Bozizé rebels arrived in his neighborhood on October 31, 2002 as they retreated following a failed coup d’état. When the rebels arrived, the local population fled their homes and rebels started looting property, which they loaded on trucks.
This witness said the rebels carted away TV sets, recorders, and suitcases. “From my house they took boxes of canned foods, bags of sugar, and generator [sets],” he added.
‘Witness D04-29’ said although he heard locals talk of refrigerators and TV sets being looted by Mr. Bemba’s troops, the Congolese fighters he saw retreating back to their country did not carry any looted goods.
“Did you hear of any formal victims complaints filed against the MLC?” Marie-Edith Douzima Lawson, a lawyer representing victims in the trial, asked.
“I am not aware of any complaints,” replied ‘Witness D04-29.’
For his part, Mr. Bemba’s former bodyguard, who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-25,’ downplayed the role his boss played in commanding the group’s fighters. He said it was the group’s chief of staff, rather than Mr. Bemba, who was in charge of commanding and disciplining the group’s soldiers – with Mr. Bemba concentrating on political affairs.
“How can he head up military operations? He is a civilian and has no military training,” the witness said of Mr. Bemba, while being questioned by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga.
According to ‘Witness D04-25,’ Mr. Bemba as the MLC political leader may have been awarded the rank of commander, but he did not undergo military training and was not responsible for military operations.
Several defense witnesses, including a military expert, have previously told the trial that operational matters of organized military groups, including disciplinary affairs, fall under the chief of staff and not the commander-in-chief. However, the trial has also heard from numerous prosecution witnesses that Mr. Bemba was in direct contact with his forces deployed in the conflict and that he was able to know about crimes his troops were committing and to discipline the errant fighters.
The former bodyguard dispelled prosecution claims that Mr. Bemba gave a speech to his forces that fueled their alleged misconduct. “Mr. Bemba did not go to Zongo to speak to the troops,” he said.
The prosecution claims that Mr. Bemba addressed his forces in the Congolese town of Zongo before they went into the conflict country. They allege that he told his troops that they had no family in the neighboring country and that once in the combat zone, anyone they encountered, including those in civilian clothing, was “the enemy.”
According to the witness, the MLC chief of staff, Colonel Dieudonné Amuli, may have addressed the troops before their deployment. The witness could not confirm this though because he was not in Zongo.
All four witnesses this week testified remotely by way of video link from an undisclosed location in Africa. In order to conceal their identities, judges granted them protective measures, including image and voice distortion as well as the frequent use of private session.