Jean-Pierre Bemba and his four associates are set to begin their defense in the witness tampering trial that opened last September at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The five accused asked to call a total of 26 witnesses, but at least six of the proposed witnesses may not testify.
The former Congolese opposition leader, his previous lawyers Aimé Kilolo Musamba and Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, Congolese legislator Fidèle Babala Wandu, and former defense witness Narcisse Arido are on trial for corruptly influencing witnesses by allegedly giving them money and instructions to provide false testimony before the ICC. According to the prosecution, the evidence tampering charges relate to the testimony of 14 witnesses who testified for Bemba in his main trial over war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The defense case is scheduled to open on Monday, February 29. Mangenda intends to call one witness, Babala four, Bemba four, Arido eight, and Kilolo ten witnesses. However, judges directed Kilolo’s lawyers to drop an expert witness and not to call five character witnesses (D21-004, D21-005, D21-006, D21-007, and D21-008). The defense is appealing this order.
Kilolo’s defense contends that in order to properly assess their client’s conduct and to fully appreciate the rationale for certain actions he took, that conduct should be viewed in the context of the normal role of a defense counsel in international criminal proceedings. The expert witness, also known as Witness D21-001, was expected to testify on the use of intermediaries, payments to witnesses during investigations, and preparing and interviewing witnesses before their in-court testimony.
Judges ruled that the specialized knowledge offered by Witness D21-001 was irrelevant and inappropriate in helping the chamber to understand the evidence presented. According to the judges, in order to determine whether Kilolo committed any offences against the administration of justice, it did not matter how defense counsel “behave in the abstract.” What mattered was Kilolo’s own acts and conduct in respect of the alleged criminal offences. “There is no indication that D21-001 has any personal knowledge of any information specific to Mr. Kilolo,” the judges ruled.
Kilolo had sought to call five character witnesses to speak to his “exemplary character and professional practices.” However, judges ruled that this case is not about Kilolo’s character, professionalism and ethics but whether his acts and conduct were criminal with respect to the relevant witnesses who testified in Bemba’s main trial.
Nonetheless, judges ruled that because of the seriousness of the allegations against Kilolo, and because character witnesses constitute more than half of his list of evidence, his lawyers can present prior recorded testimony of the character witnesses. Subject to any objections raised by the other parties, the chamber will recognize the submission of this testimony despite its reservations as to its relevance.
The prosecution presented its case between September and November 2015. Many of the prosecution witnesses testified in closed session. Among the witnesses who testified in open court was a senior executive with the money transfer firm Western Union. He testified about details of money transfers made by Bemba’s associates to various individuals.
Meanwhile, an analyst with the prosecution office at the ICC testified that intercepted communications and phone records showed that Kilolo was in contact with witnesses during periods when such contact was prohibited. He said Kilolo phoned seven defense witnesses and sent text messages to an undisclosed number of witnesses during the period of their testimony.
In October 2014, Kilolo, Mangenda, Babala, and Arido were released after nearly a year in ICC detention, after pre-trial chamber Judge Cuno Tarfusser determined that the time they had spent in detention had become unreasonable. Bemba remains in court custody, pending a verdict in his main trial, which is due to be delivered on March 21.