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

Court Told Bemba Troops Infected Women With HIV

Expert witness says rape was used during the conflict in CAR as a weapon of war.
By Wairagala Wakabi

A doctor from the Central African Republic, CAR, who has treated hundreds of women allegedly raped by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s soldiers during 2002 and 2003 told the International Criminal Court, ICC, last week that some of them were infected with HIV during their ordeals.

André Tabo, a psychiatrist and medical professor at a university in the CAR, testified for the prosecution as an expert witness.

His report for the court documents the plight of 512 survivors of rape around the CAR capital Bangui, based on his work with these survivors and data gathered by the CAR government.

In the report, Tabo said that out of the 512 survivors, 81 were found to be HIV positive, but it was found that most of them had the virus prior to the rape. The witness stated that ten of the survivors were infected during their ordeals.

He reported that his country’s parliament subsequently enacted a law which permitted women who got pregnant as a result of rape to have an abortion.

“The national assembly decided that they had to protect women who had been raped and they thought that a woman who had been raped had a right to obtain an abortion if she wished to do so,” Tabo said.

During cross-examination, the defence concentrated its questioning on the high rates of HIV infection among the rape survivors, as well as the nationality of the attackers. According to the witness, the survivors stated that the attackers were members of Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC.

“How was it then that the victims came to understand their attackers, that they were being raped to ‘punish’ them for collaborating with the enemy?” asked defence lawyer Peter Haynes.

Tabo answered that “certain languages from the DRC are understood by Central Africans and vice versa”.

The expert asserted that several rape survivors told him that soldiers who entered their houses demanded to know where the rebels were hiding and said they would punish the women if they did not disclose their whereabouts.

He said the majority of the survivors claimed that this is what they had been told before they were raped.

According to Tabo, rape was used during the armed conflict in CAR as a weapon of war and stressed soldiers who were out of control often used rape as a way to release tension.

He added that the soldiers preferred “young and attractive women”, which explained why women below 30 years were up to four times more likely to be raped than those over 30.

Asked by Haynes how he determined that ten of the 512 survivors he sampled became infected with HIV during the rape, the expert answered that this information was gathered by a separate team formed by the CAR government and funded by the United Nations.

Haynes sought to cast doubt on the credibility of the team that gathered this data, emphasising that it was not the UN but the social affairs ministry of CAR that had gathered the data.

According to the expert, the neighbourhoods in Bangui, where most rapes took place, were in the northern part, considered a stronghold of rebels led by Francois Bozizé. As such, the rapes were deemed a proclamation of victory over the opposition, he added.

The rebels were at the time trying to depose President Ange-Félix Patassé, who called in Bemba’s troops to help him beat back the rebellion. Prosecutors at the ICC charge that members of the MLC used the rape of both men and women as a weapon of war while they fought alongside Patassé’s loyalist forces.

In what appeared to be an attempt to dismiss prosecution allegations that MLC soldiers infected CAR women with HIV, Haynes tendered as evidence a CAR government report which stated that the HIV prevalence rate in that country was around 15 per cent in 2002.

He also tendered a report by the UN programme on AIDS that he claimed estimated the prevalence of infection in the DRC at the time at no more than 1.5 per cent.

Furthermore, the lawyer asked Tabo how it could be that only four women got pregnant following the rapes of more than 500 women, yet many of them were raped several times and sometimes by two or more men.

The expert witness replied that there were probably cases of unwanted pregnancies that were not reported.

According to Tabo, the targets of sexual violence as a tool of war were vulnerable people without defences, essentially women and young girls.

“There is the fact that the victims were considered to be war booty,” he said, explaining that these women and girls had often been left behind by their men who had fled due to the conflict.

Tabo stated that perpetrating sexual violence in the presence of others was connected to the “punishment” motivation, particularly if the witnesses included the victim’s husband or other relatives.

“Raping a woman before and in front of a member of her family meant punishing her and humiliating that member of the family,” he stated.

Amongst the 512 survivors sampled in the doctor’s report, 42 per cent of them were said to have been raped in front of family members.

Whereas his work and study did not include any male rape survivors, Tabo emphasised that the phenomena was the same.

“Raping a man in a time of conflict is humiliating him. The need to humiliate trumps the other considerations,” he said. “There is also the concept of punishment.”

The trial will resume on May 3.

Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR reporter in Kampala.