19 February 2013

Central African Republic: Bemba Trial Hearings Resume Next Week

Hearings in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba will resume on Monday, February 25, with the testimony of 'Witness D04-19,' who will testify via video link.

There have been no hearings in the Congolese opposition leader's trial since early December 2012, when judges ordered a temporary suspension to the hearings. This was intended to enable the defense to make additional preparations in view of a proposed change to the "legal re-characterization of the facts" of the charges against Mr. Bemba.

The defense subsequently informed judges that it would not conduct any additional preparations citing lack of funds, the limited time frame, and insufficient notice given to them by the judges. As such, the defense asked judges to order the resumption of the trial, which had earlier been scheduled to recommence next month. Since last August, the defense has called 14 of its proposed 63 witnesses.

Judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Kuniko Ozaki, and Joyce Aluoch lifted the suspension on February 6 and granted a defense request to hear 'Witness D04-19' via video link. However, in their recent order setting the date for resumption of hearings, they said Mr. Bemba's lawyers had failed to justify a request for two members of the defense team to be present at the video link location. "It is not necessary for members of the defense team to be authorized to question the witness from the location of the video-link," stated the judges in a February 15 ruling.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opposed the presence of defense lawyers at the location where the witness would give evidence from. She said this was "unnecessary" and would "provide a distinct advantage to the defense during questioning."

The common practice of testimony heard via video link in trials conducted at the ICC has involved parties and judges based in The Hague putting questions to the witness at a remote location.

"Without knowing the defense's particular justification, it is difficult to imagine any good reason to depart from this [common] procedure and allow the defense to be present with the witness while the prosecution and the chamber remain in The Hague," said Ms. Bensouda.

Furthermore, the prosecutor argued that the chamber's ability to control and oversee the proceedings would be "diminished" as it would be unable to observe and control the events between the defense team and the witness "that might occur off-camera."

Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to discipline his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops yet "he knew" they were brutalizing civilians. Judges last September said they might consider changing the facts to read that "owing to the circumstances at the time, he should have known" about the crimes his soldiers were committing. The murder, rape, and pillaging charges Mr. Bemba denies were allegedly perpetrated by his militia during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic.

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