Today, a status conference was held to discuss ways to speed up the presentation of evidence by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba's lawyers. Since the first week of December 2012, there have been no hearings in the trial being conducted at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Although judges last week lifted the temporary suspension on hearings, the defense reported that it was unable to get any witnesses ready to testify before March 4. In the past, the defense has reported difficulties in getting witnesses to the ICC, which is based in the Netherlands, to testify apparently for fear of reprisals for appearing before the court.
Last September, a defense witness who had testified for three days disappeared from the court's accommodation before he completed his testimony. Another witness, who was scheduled to testify after the one that went missing, also disappeared without a trace when he was scheduled to board the plane to The Hague.
As a result, there were no hearings for the three weeks that followed, as none of the other scheduled witnesses were available to give evidence. Furthermore, the defense changed the order of presenting its witnesses by calling Europe-based witnesses first as these expressed no difficulties in appearing before the court.
Judges are now considering hearing a select number of witnesses from the chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania and to have others give evidence via video link. The witnesses the defense is having difficulties getting to the court are believed to be based in African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR).
In the order convening today's status conference, judges stated that it would be held in closed session and attended by the defense, representatives of the court's Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), and the Registry. The latter two are responsible for logistical arrangements related to the appearance of witnesses before the court as well as ensuring their safety before and after giving evidence.
The cause of the current gap in presenting evidence is, however, not linked to the troubles the defense has had in the past. Rather, it resulted from a temporary suspension to the trial, which judges ordered last December to allow the defense to prepare additional evidence in light of a possible change to the "legal re-characterization" of the charges against Mr. Bemba.
The defense later said it would not carry out any additional preparations, citing a lack of resources to undertake investigations in hostile environments, an insufficient time frame, and a lack of "valid, prompt and legally adequate notification" by the judges. On February 6, judges lifted the suspension and ordered that proceedings resume as soon as "practicable."
Mr. Bemba has been in ICC custody since July 2008. His trial over rapes, murders, and pillage allegedly committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo troops started in November 2010. Although he was not present in the CAR during 2002 and 2003, when the crimes were being committed, prosecutors charge that he is liable as commander-in-chief because he was aware that his troops were committing crimes but neither stopped nor punished them. He denies the charges.
Since the opening of the defense case last August, 14 of the 63 listed defense witnesses have testified.