The trial of former Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo and his four associates opened on Sept. 29 at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The prosecution gave opening statements detailing accusations of witness tampering during Bemba’s other trial at the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The five are accused of offences against the administration of justice. They allegedly illegally influenced witnesses by giving them money and instructions to provide false testimony, all perpetrated in various ways including by committing, soliciting, inducing, aiding, abetting, or otherwise assisting in their commission.
Among those who are on trial with Bemba are his former lead defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo Musamba and case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo. Former defense witness Narcisse Arido and Fidèle Babala Wandu, a member of the Congolese parliament who was a chief of staff to Bemba while he was vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), are also on trial.
The judges of Trial Chamber VII reminded the parties that the purpose of proceedings is not to re-litigate the main case. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt noted that while witnesses may have falsely testified about issues relating to the main trial, this chamber cannot address the truthfulness of that evidence. Trial Chamber III, and not this chamber, is responsible for the findings in the main case. Therefore, the presiding judge noted, the chamber would not allow evidence about the truthfulness of witness testimony in the main trial, and would only allow evidence specifically related to the charges of witness tampering.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made opening statements before the trial chamber. She said that the prosecution had received an anonymous tip about Bemba’s defense corruptly influencing witnesses in the main case. Based on this tip, the prosecution launched an investigation that spanned more than a year. She said the evidence clearly indicated that witnesses were bribed, corrupted, and influenced.
Article 70 of the Rome Statute grants the court jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute anyone for offenses against the administration of justice. Crimes within Article 70 include knowingly presenting false or forged evidence, corruptly influencing a witness, and obstructing or interfering with the attendance or testimony of the witness. Conviction carries a penalty of up to five years imprisonment, a fine, or both.
Bensouda stressed that this is a very serious case with implications beyond the immediate proceedings. The importance of this case cannot be overstated, she emphasized. The case relates to the integrity of the ICC itself, Bensouda said, and is necessary to protect the principles of fairness and justice.
“The case is about the court’s determination to ensure that justice is done, even in the face of individuals that are bent on undermining it,” a senior trial lawyer for the prosecution said.
During its opening statement, the prosecution presented a recorded conversation between Kilolo and Bemba during which they allegedly conspired to interfere with witnesses. The content of the recording was heard in closed session.
The prosecution noted that evidence will include call data records, records of financial transactions, and court transcripts, all of which the prosecution claims will show that the accused are guilty. In addition, the prosecution will present over 100 intercepts of conversations at the ICC detention center, which will provide insight into the criminal plan.
The prosecution alleged that the five accused developed and implemented a criminal plan between late 2011 and November 2013 that included offences against the administration of justice to protect Bemba from conviction in his main trial. Each accused participated in the criminal plan, the prosecution argued. According to the prosecution, although the current case involves evidence of tampering with the testimony of 14 witnesses, the plan actually extended to many other defense witnesses.
The accused implemented the common plan secretly in four main ways, the prosecution said. This allegedly included circumventing the ICC detention center system by using a privileged line—limited to contact between Bemba and his lawyers—to contact third parties, including witnesses; using third parties to contact witnesses; using cell phones to surreptitiously contact witnesses; and using coded language to discuss the plan.
Bemba was the main beneficiary of the criminal plan, was at the center of the plan, and made the key decisions, the prosecution alleged. Bemba purportedly instructed, authorized, and approved every step taken in carrying out the plan. Kilolo, Bemba’s lead defense counsel, allegedly contacted witnesses and instructed them on what to say. According to the prosecution, Mangenda, also a member of Bemba’s defense team, allegedly relayed messages between Bemba and Kilolo. Babala, a member of the Democratic Republic of the Congo parliament and former colleague of Bemba, financed the plan, the prosecution alleged. He purportedly made transfers to witnesses as well as to Kilolo, Mangenda, and Arido. Arido was asked by the Bemba defense team to provide expert testimony about military operations in Central African Republic (CAR) in the main trial. He supposedly recruited witnesses for the defense team and purportedly instructed them on what to say in their statements to the lead counsel, promising them money in exchange. These witnesses later allegedly falsely testified in the main trial, the prosecution alleged.
Bemba, a former vice president, businessman, and militia leader in the DRC, was tried by the ICC in a separate case for three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) and two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape). These crimes were allegedly committed during an armed conflict in the CAR between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003. This trial has ended and the judges from Trial Chamber III are currently deliberating their trial judgment.