Bemba Trial Opens With Harrowing Testimony
The trial of former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, which opened this week, heard harrowing testimony of violence allegedly carried out by his forces.
Bemba, commander of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, faces two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes, including rape, murder, and pillaging. Bemba, the most high-profile politician to take the stand at the ICC so far, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The crimes were allegedly committed during the armed conflict in the Central African Republic, CAR, between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003, when then-CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé invited Bemba and his Congolese troops to crush the rebellion led by former armed forces chief Francois Bozizé, now the CAR president.
Giving evidence this week with face and voice distortion, a man identified only as Witness 38 described how Bemba’s rebel forces, known locally as Banyamulenge, allegedly harassed people on the street, robbing and beating them.
The witness indicated that he had participated in a group fighting Bemba’s forces, but the exact nature of his role was unclear due to protective measures.
“They were very aggressive, wicked and bad,” the witness said. “There was nothing human about those rebels of Mr Bemba at the time... their attitude was close to the behaviour of animals.”
The witness said that, within three or four days of the MLC forces arriving in Point Kilometre 12, a province near the capital Banguihe, he had met a mother whose nine-year old daughter had been raped by the soldiers.
“It was very difficult [to bear] this, she was a very small girl,” the witness said. “What could I do when I was faced with such a situation? She was bleeding and I could just say, ‘Make an effort to go to the hospital.’”
The witness also described another incident which occurred after a father tried to complain to soldiers about the kidnap and gang-rape of his daughter. In response, the witness said, the MLC troops tied the father up and raped his daughter in his presence.
Other forms of persecution took place as well, the witness continued, recalling one young man who was approached by a Banyamulenge soldier and asked to take out his penis. The soldier poked at the person’s genitals with the barrel of his gun, according to the witness. “He was not physically assaulted but he was psychologically assaulted,” Witness 38 said. “There were several such incidents.”
Witness 38 said that the progress of Bemba’s troops was rapid, recalling how he had seen MLC soldiers reach Point Kilometre 12 within hours of the withdrawal of Bozize’s troops in October 2002. The troops remained there until March 15, 2003, according to the witness, who estimated that there had been 800 to 1,000 troops stationed in Point Kilometre 12.
They were easily identifiable by their uniform insignia, knee-length boots and red and black-coloured berets, he continued, adding that he thought the facial features of Bemba’s troops looked different to those of people from CAR.
The witness also recalled being taken aback at the age of some of the soldiers bearing AK-47 machine guns, rocket launchers, and other firearms, which were “being operated by a small boy of maybe 15, 16, or 14 years.
“The gun was on a tripod and the weapon was being fired and the person firing it was a small boy of 15 years old. This was a surprise for everyone.”
As the troops set up four bases in the area, they would go through the neighbourhoods pillaging and looting, the witness said, adding that he had seen soldiers beating civilians with pieces of wood, reeds and canes attached with rubber and leather strips.
“There was robbery and rape in the houses. They would take everything they found. Radios, telephones, even the cushions for beds, everything,” continued the witness, adding that civilians who did not have belongings such as a cell phone or jewelry when confronted by soldiers on the street were stripped down to their underwear.
In another incident, the witness recounted how a man was shot by Bemba’s troops because they suspected him of being an enemy.
“They said he was a rebel because his hat was on a certain way,” the witness said. The troops then put the young man on the ground and shot him from behind. “The bullet went through his anus and went through his head,” the witness said.
The witness believes the MLC soldiers did not show remorse for their actions. “Such incidents amused them so much,” the witness said. “Maybe they thought they had achieved some exploit or reached some sort of goal.”
Bemba had visited his troops in Point Kilometre 12 at least once, according to the witness, when a parade was held, although the witness had not been able to attend it.
When asked by deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda whether he thought Bemba was aware of the crimes being committed by his troops at the time, the witness responded, “I believe that Bemba must have been aware of everything that was going on in our capital because many people spoke out, even on the radio. Radio France International gave a lot of coverage to what happened in Bangui, mainly in Begoua.”
But the behaviour of the soldiers did not change after Bemba’s visit, according to the witness.
“The acts of violence and abuse continued, and the people continued to suffer from the harassment of the troops of Bemba,” he stated.
Defence counsel Nkwebe Richard Liriss then objected to the prosecution’s line of questioning, saying he had counted 13 leading questions which he planned to complain about to the chamber before his cross-examination.
The witness also said that there were no CAR troops in the areas in which Bemba’s rebel forces set up camps.
“I believe at that time Patassé had felt betrayed by his army and he had called on the Banyamulenge rebels of Bemba,” the witness said. “So, in my opinion, I believe that he no longer trusted his army so he gave the rebels of Bemba all the leeway to act. This means that the rebels were sort of like the leader of our own army.”
This is the first trial at the ICC to prosecute a suspect on the grounds of “command responsibility”.
Bemba’s defence argues that once the MLC forces crossed over from the DRC into CAR, they were under the control of Patassé and his army and that so many military forces were stationed in the area it would be impossible to pinpoint crimes by Bemba’s troops.
Meanwhile, in a feature that is unique to the ICC, lawyers representing victims - in this case 759 - will be present during the trial to present the views and concerns of their clients. The victims’ representatives, considered a party to the proceedings, will have the opportunity to question witnesses at the discretion of the judges, and read out opening statements at the beginning of this week’s trial.
Victims’ legal representative Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson read out the orders of one of Bemba’s commanders, who allegedly told MLC troops, “You don’t have any relative, you don’t have any sister, brothers or wives, you are going there [CAR] and you will destroy everything. This is war. Bemba sent you to kill and have fun.”
Another victims’ legal representative, Assingambi Zarambaud, said, “You [the court] make it possible for not only the victims to rebuild their lives and the Central African Republic to get justice, but also for humanity, specifically Africa to make sure that those who want to continue in this path should know that impunity is no longer allowed. If people continue to perpetrate such acts, they will find themselves before the ICC and be punished.”
Cross-examination of the witness by the defence will continue next week.
Anjana Sundaram is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.