3 May 2013

Central African Republic: Bemba Trial Stalls Due to Absence of Defense Witnesses

Photo: Radio Okapi
Le sénateur Jean-Pierre Bemba à la Haye.

Jean-Pierre Bemba's trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has stalled once again, as the defense continues to experience difficulties in getting witnesses to appear before the court.

At a status conference this morning, judges revealed that an upcoming witness, whose testimony was scheduled to commence this week, had expressed fears for his security if he were to testify via video link from his current location.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said failure by 'Witness D04-56' to testify had "effectively paralyzed the proceedings since no other witness is available to appear before the chamber in the near future."

Judge Seiner said in order to revisit the decision to hear testimony by this witness via video link, the defense must provide new and compelling reasons. Otherwise, judges might exclude him from the list of witnesses.

Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba said the witness was "right" in fearing for his security if he testified via video link. This was because the leader of the country where the witness currently was based was a "very personal friend" to François Bozizé, the deposed leader of the Central African Republic (CAR).

He said 'Witness D04-56' was an important witness who was expected to name members of Mr. Bozizé's former rebel group that perpetrated violent crimes "incorrectly attributed" to Mr. Bemba's troops.

"The country of the witness's current presence has a list of all defense witnesses. Members of Bozizé's family are in the town where the witness is," said Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.

He added that a psychologist had concluded that 'Witness D04-56' would not be able to testify in a "comfortable manner and provide truth in its fullness" at the current location.

Last February, judges ruled that this witness should testify physically at the seat of the court in The Hague.

Subsequently, the court's Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) made arrangements for the witness to leave his country of residence and "transit" via another country in order to apply for a visa to travel to the Netherlands.

On Wednesday last week, before the witness had applied for a visa to The Hague, judges ordered him to testify from the transit country via video link. The witness declined.

Mr. Bemba has been on trial at the ICC since November 2010. He has denied charges of murder, rape, and pillaging arising from crimes allegedly committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers against Central African civilians during an armed conflict in 2002 and 2003.

Mr. Bemba's defense started presenting its evidence on August 14, 2012 and has called eighteen of the 63 planned witnesses. Those who have so far testified include three experts, crime-based witnesses and former MLC insiders.

Defense lawyers have previously reported difficulties in getting their witnesses to appear before the court. Uncooperative state authorities, fear of reprisal attacks, and the vulnerability of some witnesses, including those who could potentially incriminate themselves during testimony, were the main reasons the defense cited.

Regarding other upcoming witnesses, Marc Dubuisson, a representative of the court's Registry, stated that they had reached immunity and privileges agreements for court officials with an unnamed country.

Court officials would henceforth be able to assist defense witnesses based there to testify via video link. However, it would take at least four weeks' preparations before video link testimony from this country could commence.

In another unnamed country hosting other defense witnesses lined up to testify, requisite authorizations and administration permissions were still pending. Among the difficulties faced by the court's organs with this country was the lack of ground staff to operationalize cooperation agreements.

An ex parte status conference to be attended by the defense, the Registry and the VWU was scheduled to take place this afternoon for further discussions on the scheduling and appearance of witnesses.

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