A former close confidante of Jean-Pierre Bemba has said soldiers led by the former Congolese vice president "had no time" to commit crimes during their deployment in an armed conflict in 2002 and 2003.
Continuing his testimony that began Monday, 'Witness D04-49' today claimed Mr. Bemba's troops were so busy fighting insurgents that they could not have found time to rape, murder, and pillage civilians.
"When you are on the battlefront and bullets are flying...do you think they would have time to be involved in such things?" asked the witness, who was under cross-examination by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga.
Mr. Badibanga showed the witness documents that he said indicated the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers joined the fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) and committed crimes as early as October 26, 2002. The witness has since Monday insisted that the Congolese soldiers were not deployed in the conflict country before October 29, 2002.
One of the documents originated from Congolese judicial authorities, relating to the prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant Willy Bomengo, who was accused of looting. This soldier states in that he traveled to the conflict country on October 26 and stayed there until his arrest four days later. Asked about alleged committed rapes by MLC soldiers, Lieutenant Bomengo told investigating officers that a soldier, whose name he could not recall, had told him that he had heard of a rape incident carried out by another soldier whose name he also did not recall.
'Witness D04-49' said when Mr. Bemba heard of reports that his soldiers were committing abuses, he wrote to a human rights organization and to Central African authorities calling for investigations to be carried out in order to establish the truth. He said all eight soldiers against whom incriminating evidence was found by military police officers Mr. Bemba dispatched to the battlefront were prosecuted by a court martial.
In his statement, Lieutenant Bomengo denied looting any property, saying: "I did not loot; I only spent four days in Bangui." This officer was found guilty and sentenced to 24 months in prison, which he served fully.
Another document the prosecution produced was a letter written in January 2003 by Mr. Bemba to the United Nations Secretary General's Special Representative. In that letter, Mr. Bemba said he intervened in the conflict on October 27, and that as of October 30, he had acted on reports of abuses being committed by his soldiers, by sending military police investigators to the CAR.
The witness said while Mr. Bemba expressed his intentions to intervene on October 27, "we needed a certain amount of time to put this into action." He explained that a small group of soldiers were sent to the CAR on October 26 to make preparations for the deployment, but all those soldiers returned to Congo the same day. On October 27, he said, a strategic meeting attended by all senior MLC officials was held during which Mr. Bemba gave instructions for the deployment. According to the witness, the deployment of troops started on October 29.
Mr. Bemba faces five charges at the International Criminal Court. He denies prosecution claims that he failed to discipline his troops who allegedly committed crimes whilst helping then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé beat back a rebellion.
The cross-examination of 'Witness D04-49' continues tomorrow morning.