10 September 2013

Central African Republic: Five More Witnesses to Testify for Bemba

Photo: Radio Okapi
Jean-Pierre Bemba at the Hague.

Five more witnesses will testify for Congolese war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba before the close of his defense case at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Bemba's lawyers have said he will take the stand in his own defense by giving unsworn evidence.

"The accused will not be giving sworn evidence. Consideration is being given to his giving a brief unsworn statement at the conclusion of all the other oral evidence," said defense lawyers Peter Haynes and Aimé Kilolo-Musamba in a September 6, 2013 filing. The lawyers said they would keep judges informed of further developments in this regard.

Last year, two other Congolese nationals on trial at the ICC - Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui - testified in their own defense. After direct examination, they were questioned by the prosecution, victims' lawyers, and judges. Mr. Ngudjolo has since been acquitted while Mr. Katanga's trial continues.

Article 67 of the Rome Statute upon which the court is founded gives accused persons the right to make an unsworn oral or written statement in their defense. An accused also enjoys the right not to be compelled to testify or to confess guilt and to remain silent, without such silence being a consideration in the determination of guilt or innocence.

To date, the defense has called 31 witnesses, including former members of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the group Mr. Bemba founded, who have testified that the accused did not have direct command and control over his troops once they were deployed outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other witnesses have stated that they were victims or eyewitnesses to crimes perpetrated by members of armed groups other than the MLC in the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic. Three expert witnesses have also testified for the defense.

Mr. Bemba denies that his MLC troops raped, murdered, and pillaged during the conflict. The former vice president of Congo has been on trial since November 2010.

At the start of the defense case in August 2012, the defense had hoped to call 63 witnesses. However, logistical problems, including lack of travel documents to enable witnesses to travel to The Hague, and inability by the court to hear the evidence of these individuals from the countries where they are based, prompted the defense to condense its witness list.

This week, 'Witness D04-15' is expected to testify, while 'Witness D04-54' is expected to testify from September 24. Both will give evidence via video link.

The testimony of 'Witness D0-14,' 'Witness D04-41,' and 'Witness D04-44,' is provisionally scheduled for October 7, October 10, and October 14, respectively. However, defense lawyers said there was currently no "viable regime" in place for the receipt of evidence by these three witness and consultations with the court's Victims and Witnesses Unit were ongoing.

On July 16, 2013, judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Kuniko Ozaki, and Joyce Aluoch ordered that the defense complete the presentation of its evidence by October 25, 2013. They ruled that an extended six hours of hearings per day and wherever appropriate hearing testimony concurrently with one witness in the morning and another in the afternoon meant that the total time granted to the defense to present its evidence roughly mirrored that taken by the prosecution. Prosecutors called 40 witnesses over a period of 16 months.

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