17 May 2016

Central African Republic: Criticism and Compliments for Bemba's Troops At Sentencing Hearing

Photo: CPI
Jean-Pierre Bemba.

During hearings conducted before International Criminal Court (ICC) judges decide Jean-Pierre Bemba's sentence (following his conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity), divergent viewpoints were heard on the conduct of his troops. A clergy commended Bemba's troops for protecting civilians in Congo, but two victims recounted rape ordeals at the hands of these fighters when they were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Bishop Fridolin Ambongo, the head of the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission in Congo, said the arrival of Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops in that country's Équateur province brought peace and stability for civilians. The residents had previously suffered at the hands of government troops, who looted and destroyed "everything" in the province, he said.

"When the MLC arrived, for the local community it marked the end of daily bombings by Kabila troops. Finally we had peace," said Bishop Ambongo. "We now saw an army that took care of the population. People felt safe when [the MLC] were there."

The bishop, who testified as a character witness for Bemba, praised Bemba's rebel group for establishing health, education, and banking services that benefitted ordinary citizens.

In presenting evidence that casts Bemba's troops in good light, defense lawyers are hoping judges will hand the former rebel-turned-politician a light sentence. Bemba was last March found guilty on five counts arising from his failure to suppress the commission of murder, rape, and pillaging by his troops who were deployed in the CAR during 2002 and 2003.

For its part, the prosecution is seeking a minimum sentence of 25 years for Bemba, and has called victims of MLC crimes to speak about their brutalization by the rebel troops. Victim 555 said at the age of about 15-16 years, Bemba's soldiers abducted her and took her to their camp in the town of Bossangoa. One of the soldiers raped her and later took her as his wife. "He considered that I was his wife and we shared the same bed," she said.

When the MLC were retreating, the soldier took Victim 555 with him to Congo, where she discovered she was pregnant. She lost her first child but later gave birth to a girl while still in captivity. She spent four years living with the unnamed soldier before she escaped. Victim 555 said that, upon return to her hometown, she was stigmatized, with some residents proclaiming that "the wife of the Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] is in town." She was unable to return to school and has since relocated to the capital Bangui where people do not know what happened to her. Victim 555 currently has four children by four different fathers and said she is unable to afford school fees for them.

"I feel sad when I see how I live ... it is because of what happened to me that I am in this situation. Those I studied with today work and have a salary. I have none of that. I could have been married to one man. I am deeply depressed and have had suicidal thoughts," she said.

Meanwhile, Victim 480 said after her abduction and rape by MLC soldiers, she tested positive for HIV. She added that she does not have money for medical treatment.

Asked what expectations she had of the proceedings at the ICC, she responded: "I hope the court will be able to ensure some form of reparations so I can continue to live properly during the time that remains for me on earth."

Both victims stated that the troops looted, attacked and killed civilians in the town of Bossangoa and Bossambele. They testified with protective measures including the use of pseudonym as well as voice and image distortion during public broadcasts of the hearing.

However, in his testimony Bishop Ambongo said errant MLC soldiers were put to trial and disciplined. "There was a trial in Gbadolite," he said, referring to the Congolese town where the group had its headquarters. "The event was well known. It was the first time we heard that a soldier who had committed crimes against the population had been tried and sanctioned."

He said he was not aware of any misconduct by Bemba's troops deployed in neighbouring CAR, and said he was astonished to hear that they committed crimes. Said the bishop: "How can it be the same person who assisted us, brought peace and order to our affairs, how can the same person transform himself into a monster?"

Sentencing hearings continue tomorrow with submissions from prosecutors and defense lawyers.

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