Today, a former combatant in the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) disputed the date that prosecutors claim forces from the group led by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba were deployed into the conflict.
According to the former member of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-13,’ the fighters were not deployed into the conflict country until October 29, 2002. His account is at variance with prosecution claims that as of October 25 of that year, the accused’s soldiers were committing rapes, murders, and pillaging in the conflict.
The witness, who was among the Congolese soldiers deployed in the neighboring country, recalled that a small group of MLC soldiers was sent to the Central African capital Bangui on October 26, 2002, but they spent a few hours in that country meeting with local commanders before returning home the same day.
He said this group of approximately 100 troops crossed by boat from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the CAR, where they were received at Camp Beyale in Bangui. The group included a number of company commanders and foot soldiers acting as guards.
“Did that delegation go for war purposes?” asked defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba.
The witness replied, “If they had crossed over to engage in war, it would have been the platoon commanders to go. Company commanders are not the ones who head up combat.” He added that the delegation had no support weaponry, only an individual weapon and its magazine per individual.
At Camp Beyale, the witness said, company commanders went into a meeting room while foot soldiers remained outside.
“The meeting was chaired by the Central African deputy chief of general staff. His name was Thierry Lengbe,” he said. Colonel Lengbe invited the Congolese “to come to their help to ward off the enemy” who was threatening to overthrow the government, whose leader at the time was President Ange-Félix Patassé.
“Did any members of the delegation go to other neighborhoods in Bangui apart from Camp Beyale?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
“They did not leave the camp,” replied the witness, who also said that the soldiers returned to the Congolese town of Zongo by 4pm of the same day.
He said when the soldiers returned to their Congolese base, two of their leaders, Colonel René Abongo and Lieutenant Willy Bomengo, reported to the MLC high command about the meeting in the conflict country, and it was decided to deploy a battalion of soldiers on October 29.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops brutalized civilians in the CAR between October 25, 2002 and March 15, 2003. The defense counters that Mr. Bemba’s troops were not yet deployed in that country at the time many of the crimes blamed on them were committed.
Furthermore, while acknowledging sending his troops into the conflict, Mr. Bemba denies that he had knowledge of crimes his troops were allegedly committing and that he failed to punish them.
On November 4, 2013, judges granted a defense request to hear the evidence of ‘Witness D04-13’ in the place of ‘Witness D04-41,’ who the judges considered unwilling and unable to testify given difficulties in contacting him. According to defense lawyers, due to the role played by the two witnesses at the time of the conflict, there was a “significant overlap in the proposed content of their evidence.”
‘Witness D04-13’ was initially withdrawn from the defense list of witnesses due to “pressure exerted” on him by undisclosed parties, including “arbitrary arrest and questioning” in relation to his association with the defense team.
The witness testified by way of video link, with his image and voice distorted in order to protect his identity. He continues to give evidence tomorrow morning.