Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, a member of the defense team in the ongoing trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, on Thursday made his initial appearance before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on allegations of witness and evidence tampering.
Mr. Kabongo, who has been case manager for Mr. Bemba’s defense, confirmed his identity and added: “I have understood the counts, and I do not acknowledge the counts lodged against me.”
The accused was surrendered to the court yesterday upon completion of national proceedings in the Netherlands where he was arrested on November 23. Prosecutors allege that he, together with Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, who was Mr. Bemba’s lead counsel, Fidèle Babala Wandu, a member of the Congolese parliament, and Narcisse Arido, a defense witness in the trial, are responsible for corruptly influencing witnesses and presenting false or forged evidence before the court.
The four are jointly accused with Mr. Bemba, who has since November 2010 been on trial over alleged failure to stop or punish his marauding Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic.
Jean Flamme, the lawyer representing Mr. Kabongo, said the allegations against the five suspects were “serious” and “a trial within a trial.” He said the proceedings could have an influence on the main case against Mr. Bemba and the careers of the lawyers involved.
Furthermore, Mr. Flamme said the seizure of items, including from Mr. Kabongo’s office and recordings of intercepted phone calls, was “excessive” and had compromised the defense strategy in Mr. Bemba’s ongoing trial because his lawyers had also been looking into witness tampering by the prosecution.
“There is a letter from a prosecution witness asking for money promised to them. These are protected witnesses and the prosecution is not independent and has an interest in the matter,” said Mr. Flamme.
Judge Cuno Tarfusser ruled that all materials Dutch authorities seized from Mr. Kabongo’s home and office shall remain in the custody of the court’s registry until an independent counsel is appointed to determine the relevance of the materials to the case and those subject to confidentiality. The pre-trial chamber judge made a similar ruling yesterday in relation to three other suspects.
The judge informed Mr. Kabongo that the evidence disclosure schedule set for Mr. Bemba, Mr. Kilolo, and Mr. Wandu, who made their initial appearance before him on November 27, applied to him as well.
However, the judge stated that whereas contact restrictions with family members and third parties were yesterday lifted for Mr. Bemba, Mr. Kilolo, and Mr. Wandu, the restrictions in place for Mr. Kabongo would expire 72 hours from the time of his entry into court custody. Thereafter, he would enjoy the same rights as his co-accused.
All suspects, except Mr. Arido are being held at the Scheveningen detention center in The Hague. Mr. Arido’s transfer to the court is pending the conclusion of national proceedings in France, where he was arrested.
Between now and May 2014, a series of status conferences shall take place for the filling of evidence and submissions by the prosecution and the defense. Thereafter, Judge Tarfusser shall render a written decision on the confirmation of charges.