Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A witness told the International Criminal Court, ICC, trial of former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba that she was raped by two soldiers belonging to the defendant’s group in the Central African Republic, CAR, and subsequently tested positive for HIV.
But the woman, the fifth prosecution witness in the case, added that she was not sure if it was the soldiers who raped her that infected her with the virus since she had not taken an HIV test prior to the attack.
The witness, Witness 68, testifying with face and voice distortion, insisted that the soldiers who raped her on October 27, 2002, were members of Bemba’s Movement for Congolese Liberation, MLC. The defence, however, argued that there were no MLC soldiers in CAR on the date the witness said she was raped.
“It is the defence case that no soldiers of the MLC entered the Central African Republic until October 30, 2002,” defence lawyer Peter Haynes stated last week while cross-examining the witness.
“I’ve only said here what I experienced,” the witness replied.
She then said that she was not sure of the dates when the Congolese troops entered Bangui, the capital of the CAR.
“Therefore, if you are right, on 27 October, there must have been some other men on the territory of the CAR who spoke Lingala [a Congolese language]. Do you agree?” Haynes asked the witness.
“Yes,” she replied.
The witness told the court that, as fighting raged in her neighbourhood in October 2002, she and her sister-in-law stayed locked in her house for two days before they decided to flee.
She said that while they were attempting to escape on October 27, 2002, they met three soldiers, and that two of them raped her as a third soldier stood on her arms to keep her on the ground.
The witness also told the trial, presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner, that her sister-in-law was raped by the men on that day as they attempted to flee from the fighting. The witness said her sister-in-law died in 2005 because of health complications related to that attack.
She said the soldiers who raped her and her sister-in-law spoke Lingala, a language she was familiar with as she had met several Congolese women who spoke it.
The witness said that after the attack, she experienced a lot of pain and suffered a swollen spleen. She added that medical examinations subsequently revealed that she was HIV positive.
“My spirits are low. I have a tendency to depression, and when I see a soldier or a man with a weapon, I am afraid. Even on a public road, I get very afraid,” the witness said.
Judge Steiner said that following an assessment of the witness by a psychologist from the Victims and Witnesses Unit, VWU, of the court, a support person from the VWU would sit next to the witness in the courtroom and a psychologist would be available in court to monitor the witness.
Judges also upheld recommendations by VWU psychologists that the witness should be asked short, simple, open-ended questions. Judge Steiner asked the parties to put questions to Witness 68 in a non-confrontational manner, and to ensure that embarrassing questions were avoided or formulated as delicately as possible.
Bemba, 48, faces two charges of crimes against humanity and three war crimes charges 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.
According to prosecutors at the ICC, his Congolese troops were in the country at the invitation of then president Ange-Felix Patassé, who faced an insurgency led by sacked army chief-of-staff Francois Bozizé.
Bemba’s defence contended that government troops, their allied militia, and the rebels who were attempting to overthrow Patassé, were among the armed groups in Bangui at the time Witness 68 said she was raped.
“During this period were you familiar with whether Bozizé’s troops had bases and where these bases were?” defence lawyer Haynes asked the witness.
“They were based towards the city and also in Boy-Rabé. They also had a base at Point Kilomètre 12 (PK12),” the witness replied.
Boy-Rabé and PK 12 are some of the Bangui suburbs where the prosecution claims that some of Bemba’s alleged crimes took place.
The witness was then shown a map of the city of Bangui and asked to pinpoint the presidential palace and the neighbourhood in which she said she was assaulted. Haynes then stated that the witness was raped in an area which was then under the control of Bozizé’s rebels.
He said that whereas the witness was correct that there were reports of the MLC entering CAR on October 27, 2002, at the time of her rape, the Congolese soldiers were very far from where she lived.
Earlier on in her testimony, Witness 68 had stated that Bozizé’s rebels did not harm civilians.
“They [Bozizé’s rebels] did not harm people. They were just going around in groups. I didn’t see them do anything [evil] in particular,” she said. According to her, the rebels fought alongside Chadian soldiers who wore turbans.
Following the witness’ claim that the soldiers spoke Lingala, trial lawyer Petra Kneur asked her what language members of the armed forces of CAR, known as FACA, spoke.
“They are Central Africans and when they speak, they speak Sango. If the person knows how to speak French or English, the person may do so,” the witness answered.
Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR reporter.
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