Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and his four associates have started their defense in the evidence tampering trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The charges arise from alleged bribery and coaching of witnesses to provide false testimony in Bemba's main trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, in which a verdict will be delivered on March 21, 2016.
Presentation of the defense case is expected to last for a few weeks, with no more than 20 witnesses testifying. Some defense teams have indicated they will question some of their witnesses for as few as 15 minutes, with the highest being three hours. In other trials before the ICC, calling parties question some of their witnesses for up to 10 hours, and the same time is allocated to cross-examination of such witnesses.
The prosecution itself called less than ten witnesses, who testified mostly in closed session over a period of less than two months. The trial of Bemba, his previous lawyers Aimé Kilolo Musamba and Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, Congolese legislator Fidèle Babala Wandu, and former defense witness Narcisse Arido, opened last September.
Kilolo's defense was the first to call a witness, a national of the Central African Republic (CAR), who testified for the defense in Bemba's main trial as Witness D04-29 back in August 2013. During his two-day testimony then, he stated that rebels allied with the country's erstwhile defense chief, François Bozizé, raped his wife and committed other crimes. He also testified that Bemba's soldiers did not carry any looted goods as they retreated back to Congo. The wife of this witness testified immediately after him, affirming that local rebels raped her, and denying knowledge of any crimes committed by Bemba's forces.
In the current trial, Witness D04-29 testified as Witness D213. He testified that he asked the ICC's Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) for assistance to relocate his son from the CAR to the country where the witness lived as a refugee with his wife and two other children. However, the court was unable to help. When the witness relayed this information to Kilolo, the lawyer responded that he did not have money to assist him, but would speak to Bemba's friends to see if they could assist.
The witness subsequently received a telephone call from the Congolese capital Kinshasa. An unnamed individual informed him that he had sent him CFA Franc 300,000 (US$500) to transport his son, as had been discussed with Kilolo. Witness D213 said he used the money to buy a boat ticket for his son to join him. "I have never lied to the prosecution about receiving this money," he added.
He said he received the money after his testimony, so it could not have been a bribe for his testimony. If he were to be bribed for his testimony, he would have asked for a million dollars, "then I would go to a quiet part of the world and take it easy with the money." The witness insisted he only asked for his son's ticket, not money, from the VWU and later from Kilolo.
However, a Western Union transaction slip presented in court by the prosecution showed the witness received the money sent from Kinshasa on the night after the first day of his testimony. To this, the witness replied: "A lot of things happened, I don't remember."
In explaining some inconsistencies between his testimony in court and what he told prosecution investigators in 2014, Witness D213 said during those interviews, the investigators harassed and intimidated him, and "I thought it was best to say the truth they were looking for as long as it protects me from possible prosecution." The witness said the investigators said they knew all about his life, accused him of lying in his earlier testimony to court, and asked him to tell the truth to avoid prosecution at the ICC. Witness D213 said during those interviews, he repeatedly got angry and nearly attacked the investigators. "They treated me as some simple hooligan, a liar, a thief," he said.
For more than a year, prosecution investigators tapped the phones and email conversations of Bemba and his lawyers. They also obtained various records related to money transfers from Bemba's lawyers and other associates to defense witnesses.
Judge Bertram Schmitt, the Single Judge of the Chamber hearing the witness tampering trial, has repeatedly stated that the current trial is not a re-litigation of the main case. Inevitably, both the prosecution and the defense keep referring to evidence heard in the main trial, as both are heavily relying on witnesses who testified in the earlier trial.
The majority of individuals expected to testify in the current trial are witnesses the prosecution alleges provided false evidence in Bemba's main trial in exchange for money. A number of them are expected to testify via video link after failing to travel to the court's seat. This is the case, for instance, with Witness D213, and with Mangenda's only witness.
"Those witnesses especially are witnesses that should appear in court in person to defend their testimony... for the chamber to fairly assess [their] evidence," said prosecution lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye. He said the prosecution considers those witness "suspects," as the pre-trial chamber found evidence indicating that they were complicit to crimes.
Defense lawyer Charles Achaleke Taku said his client Arido is ready to testify in his own defense "because he welcomes the opportunity to clear his name." Arido is accused of recruiting, instructing, persuading, and influencing four witnesses to either provide false information or withhold the truth from the court. He is also accused of transferring money to witnesses.
Taku said only two of the witnesses Arido is alleged to have corrupted testified for the prosecution in the current trial, and they confirmed they were only provided with money for transport and drinks. He added that Arido asked witnesses to speak to Bemba's lawyers and not to the chamber.
Hearings in the trial are scheduled to continue throughout this month.