The Hague — Two and a half years after he was booked into the International Criminal Court’s detention center in The Hague, former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba’s war crimes trial finally kicked off today.
The trial is the first to be heard at the ICC in which a military commander is being held criminally responsible for crimes committed by his troops. The trial is also significant because it involves the most prominent individual ever to be tried by the court since it started operations eight years ago. Moreover, the trial will hear a great deal of evidence on the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Mr. Bemba’s defense today reeled off a litany of complaints, arguing that the arrest and detention of their client was based on false information that the prosecution provided to judges. The defense also stated that the freezing of Mr. Bemba’s assets at the bidding of the court had rendered it difficult for his defense to conduct investigations before the start of the trial.
“Immediately after the arrest of Mr. Bemba, the prosecution quickly seized all of the assets of Mr. Bemba, including real estate and other types of assets, but on the basis of no rule to be found in the statute,” principle defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss said. “The statute does recognize indeed that it is possible to seize assets and property that may have been the result of crime, but not real estate that Mr. Bemba acquired through a number of companies ten years before he begun his military efforts.”
Mr. Nkwebe stated that whereas judges had in May 2008 declined to issue an arrest warrant against Mr. Bemba due to lack of sufficient evidence, “to get around this difficulty, the prosecutor claimed that Mr. Bemba was on the point of fleeing to an unknown destination, thereby obliging the chamber to issue the warrant of arrest.” The defense lawyer added, “Up until now, the defense has made repeated requests to obtain the items that apparently gave the prosecution grounds to claim that Mr. Bemba was going to flee, but our requests have been in vain.”
The prosecution charges that Mr. Bemba, 48, is criminally responsible as a commander for murder, rape, and pillaging, allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) by his troops during 2002 and 2003. Mr. Bemba, a Congolese national, has acknowledged that troops from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) military group that he led went to neighboring CAR during this period to help the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, stave off a coup attempt. Mr. Bemba has denied all charges against him.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, today stated that Mr. Bemba knew that MLC troops were committing crimes and did not use his powers to prevent or repress their commission. Mr. Ocampo then stated the significance of the trial: “Jean-Pierre Bemba used an entire army as a weapon to rape, pillage, and kill civilians in the CAR. Today he is brought to account for deliberately failing to prevent, repress, or punish mass atrocities committed by his men in CAR.”
Mr. Ocampo went on, “Bemba’s troops stole the possessions of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world. Bemba’s troops raped massively, women, girls, and elders – age didn’t matter. So basically this [was] rape and gender crimes, crimes of domination and humiliation to destroy Bemba’s victims.”
Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a legal representative for victims, said rape is a great part of the charges against Mr. Bemba. “Frequently, collective rapes were carried out against women and children, even those who were menstruating,” she said, adding that MLC fighters also raped men and elderly women. According to her, the intention of the MLC rebels was to intimidate, humiliate, and terrify members of the civilian population, who were thought to be opposed to president Patassé.
The prosecutor submitted that Mr. Bemba had effective authority and control over the MLC during 2002 and 2003. “He ordered the deployment of the troops and their withdrawal. He had power to appoint and demote … Bemba had the power to prevent and repress the commission of these crimes,” he said.
However, the defense counsel argued that Mr. Bemba was being detained without proper or sufficient grounds that would justify such detention. “In the days to come, we await a new ruling from the trial chamber which will determine whether or not there truly are grounds that would justify continued detention,” Mr. Nkwebe said.
The Bemba trial is being heard by Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner, Judge Joyce Aluoch, and Judge Kuniko Ozaki. At the start of the trial this afternoon, the prosecution, legal representatives of victims, and the defense, made their opening statements after Mr. Bemba’s lawyers had affirmed that the accused understood the five charges he faces. The lawyers said Mr. Bemba pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Judge Steiner told the trial that so far, judges had granted 775 victims the right to participate in the trial. Another 653 applications were being considered.
Mr. Bemba’s case becomes the third trial to be conducted by the ICC. Three other Congolese nationals - Thomas Lubanga, Mathieu Ngudjolo, and Germain Katanga - are on trial over war crimes they reportedly committed while heading militia groups in their homeland.
Senior trial lawyer for the prosecution Petra Kneur told the trial that prosecution witnesses would include eight victims or those who witnessed victimization, 13 former MLC insiders, an expert on military command structures and responsibility, five overview witnesses who would provide evidence on the context of the crimes Mr. Bemba is charged with, and three other experts, including one on the use of rape as a weapon of war.|
Mr. Ocampo said the chamber’s decision would have a preventative impact beyond the 114 states that are party to the ICC’s Rome statute. “So the judges’ definition of the responsibility of the commander will be a warning for all military commanders in the world,” he said.
The first prosecution witness going by the pseudonym ‘witness 38’ is expected to take the witness stand tomorrow afternoon. Before adjourning today, Judge Steiner granted the prosecution’s request for in-court protective measures for this witness. The witness will give evidence with face and voice distortion.