Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Court Told Bemba Soldiers Looted

Witness claims that militia commanders did not reprimand troops over offences.
By Wairagala Wakabi

The trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba last week heard that members of his militia looted civilians’ property in the Central African Republic, CAR.

The only person to testify last week, identified only as Witness 7, recounted how commanders of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, looked on as soldiers committed abuses against civilians.

Witness 73, the eleventh witness called by the prosecution in the trial of the former Congolese vice president at the International Criminal Court, ICC, stated that Libyan troops who took part in fighting in the CAR capital Bangui never committed atrocities against civilians.

“No one ever heard that the Libyans went into the neighbourhoods and carried out acts of violence, or that they beat or attacked anyone,” said the witness. “The Libyans never did that.”

The witness described how, on November 22, 2002, the Libyans entered a suburb of Bangui as they fought on the side of Ange-Félix Patassé, then president of the CAR. He said Patassé had invited the Libyans, as well as Bemba’s forces, to help him beat a coup attempt led by sacked army chief General François Bozizé.

Bozizé is the current president of the country, having overthrown Patassé in March 2003 and won elections in 2005 and in January 2011.

Bemba, 48, faces two charges of crimes against humanity and three of war crimes resulting from his alleged failure to stop or to punish his MLC troops as they committed crimes against the civilian population in CAR during 2002 and 2003.

The witness recounted how MLC commanders looked on as soldiers committed violent acts against civilians.

Witness 73 said an individual identified as the commander of the MLC in the neighbourhood where he lived did not reprimand troops who looted from civilians and carried out numerous abuses.

“There was nobody to stop them,” the witness said. “They did exactly as they wished. Even their leader was there when they committed those abuses.”

“Do you know whether the perpetrators were punished?” prosecuting lawyer Hesham Mourad asked.

The witness replied that MLC soldiers were never reprimanded by their commanders.

“It was their commander who commanded the attacks and took part in the attacks. They were not afraid of doing anything, committing these atrocities, because after committing these atrocities, they were very happy,” he said.

The witness said this commander was known as Saddam, although he could not say what his military rank was.

The witness recounted how his neighbour’s son told Bemba’s soldiers to go and ask for food from Patassé, who had invited them to the country, instead of stealing from civilians.

“All of a sudden one of them armed his rifle and wanted to shoot the child,” the witness recalled. “The commander intervened to calm his troops and withdrew his weapon.

“Then another shot and the shooting alerted others who came towards the compound. The boy, they beat him up, kicked him…and he lost consciousness. Instead of leaving him, they decided to take him to the base.”

He said soldiers also beat up the boy’s father, and raped the boy’s 10-year-old sister. The witness said the soldiers kept beating the boy as they dragged him to their base.

“Close to the base, the colonel was there, and he seized [the boy] by his legs. He dragged him, his head was bouncing on the ground. And they opened the jail and they pulled him [inside],” he said.

The witness said the boy was released following his mother’s pleas. He did not say how old his neighbour’s son was.

The witness also testified that Bemba’s troops chased civilians out of their homes in the Bangui suburb of PK12, and turned these houses into their residences or bases. He said MLC soldiers dug a trench in front of his house, and also beat him up.

“They were beating me with their weapons. I could not stand up. I fell to the ground and they started stamping on me with their feet. At the same time, they started demanding that my wife should give them drinks,” he said.

The witness stated that as soldiers grabbed items from his house and from his wife’s shop, “the commander spoke to them and he also spoke to me while pointing his weapon at me and he threatened to kill me”.

The witness said “Libyan troops” did not go to PK12, but remained in their bases.

Asked by Mourad how the Libyans were dressed, Witness 73 answered, “[Their] uniforms were different from [those] of the FACA forces [Forces Armées Centrafricaines, the national army of the CAR]. They had two uniforms – dark green and there were also white fatigues.”

The witness later acknowledged that there were some inconsistencies between the oral testimony he gave last week and written statements he made earlier to court officials.

During cross-examination, an irregularity was pointed out in the witness’s oral testimony, compared to his previous application to participate as a victim. In his application, he had stated that his daughter was 17, but in court he said she was ten.

“Where it concerns her age, 17 was a mistake,” he said. “I just answered the question without hesitating or reflecting. She was born in 1992.”

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said to the witness that a handwritten account attached to his application form stated that MLC soldiers entered his house, threw his underage daughter to the ground and raped her. She said this was inconsistent with his in-court testimony.

“What is certain is that they did sleep with her,” the witness replied. “But to say that she had been thrown to the ground and raped is something I cannot accept. My daughter wasn’t in my house at the time. They didn’t rape or brutalise her in my house.”

Asked by Judge Steiner who helped him fill in the form, the witness answered that it was “one of the investigators of the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor], the one who interviewed me”.

Witness 73 also said that while his application presented in court was dated March 2010, it was actually filled in during 2008.

The witness said an individual who claimed to be from the reparations office of the ICC asked him to inflate the value of what he lost to MLC soldiers. He said he had been introduced to this individual by his neighbour.

The witness claimed that he was told, “People are mentioning large sums of money, and you are mentioning just small amounts of money. You don’t want to eat some of the cake?”

It was not possible to establish what amount the witness eventually claimed on his form, as the rest of his cross-examination was conducted in closed session.

The trial continues this week.

Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR-trained journalist.