Jean-Pierre Bemba's defense team has hit a snag with two of its witnesses: one testified for three days then disappeared from the court before completing his testimony.
Another, who was scheduled to begin testifying last week, did not board the plane to The Hague and has since become untraceable.
As a result of the unavailability of witnesses, there were no hearings all of last week. There will be no hearings this week either.
At a status conference this morning, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner stated that "for unknown reasons, 'Witness D04-07' did not present himself to continue giving testimony on Monday, September 24, 2012." According to information from the court's Registry, the witness left his accommodation on the evening of September 23, 2012 and has not been seen or heard from since.
"The testimony of 'Witness D04-07' is suspended until further notice," said Judge Steiner.
'Witness D04-07' is a former intelligence officer in the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). He first took the witness stand on September 19, 2012 and was due to conclude his testimony on Monday, September 24, with questioning by legal representatives of victims participating in the trial. However, the day's hearing was cancelled when the witness could not be traced.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of 'Witness D04-11,' who was scheduled to appear after the conclusion of testimony by 'Witness D04-07,' are also unknown. According to Judge Steiner, on September 27, 2012, the chamber was informed that this witness had not boarded the flight booked for him to travel to The Hague.
"The Registry has upon instruction cancelled the flight ticket booked for this witness and informed the relevant authorities that the reasons for which his visa was issued are no longer valid," said the Presiding Judge.
In his testimony before he went missing, 'Witness D04-07' provided evidence on the logistics support provided by the government of Ange-Félix Patassé to Mr. Bemba's troops during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). He said the support included uniforms, ranger boots, ammunition, vehicles, and communication equipment.
He has also stated that the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops, invited by Mr. Patassé to assist his loyalist forces beat back a rebellion, were commanded by Central African authorities during their five-month deployment in the conflict country.
Mr. Bemba, the leader of the MLC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the alleged rape, murder, and plunder committed by his troops against Central African civilians during the conflict. He has denied two war crimes and three crimes against humanity.
Before he commenced his testimony, judges granted 'Witness D04-07' protective measures in order to conceal his identity. Some of his testimony was heard in closed session, and his image and face were distorted in public broadcasts of his testimony.
Numerous witnesses in trials conducted at the ICC have been granted protective measures in order to minimize the risk of them or their families being subject to reprisal attacks as a result of their appearance before the court.
It is unclear whether the disappearance of 'Witness D0-07' was linked to security concerns.
In another trial taking place at the ICC, that of former Congolese militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, three witnesses who testified in public are seeking asylum in the Netherlands. They said they would face severe consequences if they returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo after incriminating the country's president, Joseph Kabila, in war crimes. According to Radio Netherlands, Dutch court last week ordered the transfer of these witnesses from the ICC to the custody of Dutch authorities.
To ensure an expeditious and fair trial, judges are now considering changes to the order of appearance of some defense witnesses and alternatives to live testimony at the court in The Hague. "The chamber is considering hearing some of these witnesses via video link from a convenient location or in situ at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania," said Judge Steiner.
Lead defense counsel Aimé Kilolo-Musamba submitted that some of the witnesses the defense has lined up are "vulnerable," others might be likely to incriminate themselves during their testimony, and that others have security concerns about themselves and their families. However, according him, 35 of the 59 witnesses scheduled to testify "don't have any problems and are able to appear before the court almost immediately."
Marc Dubuisson, the director of court services at the ICC, stated that specific requests for protective measures were not received from the defense during initial contact with defense witnesses and their families. As a result, security concerns may have arisen even where in-court protective measures were in place.
Mr. Dubuisson added that besides protective measures, psychologists and social workers were also available to all witnesses prior to and during their stay in The Hague. They also had escort services during travel. He emphasized, however, that contact needs to be made with the Registry in order to avail these resources to the defense.
For its part, the prosecution expressed concern about the expeditiousness of the defense's presentation of evidence. Noting that five witnesses had been presented over the course of 60 days, prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur said that it may take up to 30 months for all of the defense witnesses to appear "if we keep this pace." However, Ms. Kneur suggested that 'Witness D04-07â-'s decision not to continue his testimony and the disappearance of 'Witness D04-11' may not be a coincidence.
"As we know from a Registry report, there is a link between these two witnesses," Ms. Kneur said.
Without disclosing the purported link, Ms. Kneur stated that the Registry has proved in all other trials conducted by the court that it could meet the security and logistics requirements of witnesses that have appeared before the ICC.
To enable the chamber make a decision on changes in the order of presentation of evidence by the defense, judges ordered the defense, Registry, and Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) to carry out joint consultations to review any potential difficulties in relation to the appearance of some of the defense witnesses.
Hearings in the trial are scheduled to resume on October 15, 2012.