Today, two defense witnesses in Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial attributed crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003 to rebel forces that were commanded by François Bozizé.
Testifying in the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which resumed on Tuesday following the court’s summer recess, both ‘Witness D04-23’ and ‘Witness D04-26’ gave evidence via video link from an undisclosed location. Their evidence was frequently heard in closed session, and their images and voices were distorted during public broadcasts of their testimonies in order to protect their identities.
In the morning, ‘Witness D04-23’ said that during October 2002, the Bozizé rebels pillaged several towns, including Fu, Boy-Rabé, and PK12. “I can not say that they conducted themselves like responsible freedom fighters,” he said.
Asked by defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba whether he was aware of any rape incidents perpetrated by the rebels, ‘Witness D04-23’ said there was one incident that affected him personally as it concerned his family. The witness gave details of this incident in private session.
Meanwhile, during the afternoon ‘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.
Prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops raped, pillaged, and murdered during the conflict that ended in a capture of power by Mr. Bozizé. The Congolese troops were invited into the neighboring country by its then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to help him beat back a rebellion.
As the MLC commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is on trial for purportedly failing to restrain or sanction his troops. He denies all five charges against him, claiming other groups involved in the fighting perpetuated the crimes.
In testimony heard today, 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.
‘Witness D04-23’ had earlier been withdrawn from the defense list of witnesses when Mr. Bemba’s lawyers lost contact with him. However, on August 15, 2013, the defense asked judges to re-instate this witness, stating that owing to his role at the time of the events, he was “in possession of information not previously presented by other witnesses heard in the case.” It was not clear what roles ‘Witness D04-23’ and ‘Witness D04-26’ played during the conflict.
Due to undisclosed reasons, ‘Witness D04-15’ who was previously scheduled to take the witness stand this morning was not available to testify and his testimony has been postponed.
Hearings in the trial continue tomorrow with ‘Witness D04-23’ appearing in the morning and ‘Witness D04-26’ in the afternoon.