On Wednesday, the prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) made a final plea to judges to convict former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba for the rape, murder, and looting committed by his troops in 2002 and 2003.
Prosecution lawyers recounted gang-rapes of women and men in public view, murders “in pursuance of an organizational policy” to brutalize civilians, and the looting of goods that were sold on behalf Mr. Bemba’s commanders. The crimes were allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR).
According to the prosecution, as commander-in-chief of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), Mr. Bemba bears responsibility for failing to prevent or to punish his soldiers who committed the crimes. Mr. Bemba’s MLC troops were sent to the CAR to support then President Ange-Félix Patassé, who faced a rebellion led by army chief of staff François Bozizé.
At Wednesday’s hearing of closing oral arguments, prosecution lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye said, “They raped women, girls and men with authority, they raped minors as young as eight or nine.”
She said a girl who was raped by two of Mr. Bemba’s fighters while she was 12 years old was among those who testified in the trial, while a father recounted the rape of his 10-year old daughter. Ms. Bala-Gaye said one MLC soldier routinely raped only girls aged under 10, believing this would cure him of HIV. She added that the Bemba fighters infected some of their victims with HIV “and they died subsequently.”
The rapes were not just sexual crimes, she said, but also crimes of humiliation and domination with the intent to destroy the capacity of local men to lead. “Rape was a key part of their attack … its aim was to victimize the civilian population and leave them powerless,” said Ms. Bala-Gaye. “Rape of men of authority in plain view was to show that they [MLC soldiers] had absolute power and to show that the formerly powerful were now powerless.”
An inquiry by the CAR prosecutor found that among 1,000 victims of the 2002-2003 crimes, there were 700 rape survivors. Meanwhile, Dr. André Tabo, who treated victims of the attacks and testified as a prosecution expert witness, identified 512 survivors of sexual violence in the CAR capital Bangui and its environs.
Ms. Bala-Gaye said the MLC committed 90 rapes in the suburb of Boy-Rabé and 250 in PK 12. The rape incidents were likely much higher due to under-reporting for fear of stigmatization and ostracization.
“Sons were forced to rape their mothers in front of their fathers. Wives were raped in front of their husbands, and they raped children in front of their parents,” said the prosecution lawyer.
The trial, which began in November 2010, heard from 40 prosecution witnesses, 34 defense witnesses, and two witnesses called by judges. A total of 5,229 victims are participating in the trial, of whom 14 are organizations. Among those who testified were 16 individuals with dual status, meaning they were both victims and witnesses. Judges also called two additional victims to testify and three others to presents their views and concerns to the chamber.
Senior trial lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga said the trial set a precedent as the first conducted by the ICC on the command responsibility of a military leader. “Command responsibility is not a minor mode of responsibility and should not be considered as such. Military commanders are the first to benefit from crimes committed by their troops,” he said. He claimed Mr. Bemba did not pay wages to his army of 20,000 fighters, but to buy their loyalty he allowed them to live off the civilian population by doing as they willed.
Mr. Badibanga also noted that this case was the first before the ICC in which the vast majority of crimes were sexual in nature. This presented an opportunity for the court to send a message to the world that “women can not be considered spoils that soldiers are entitled to during an armed conflict.”
“The MLC soldiers, with the consent of their commanders, felt that women, and sometimes men, were spoils of war that they were entitled to,” said Mr. Badibanga. “They must be told that this is not the case.”
According to prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson, Mr. Bemba maintained command responsibility over his troops deployed in the neighboring country, communicating orders directly through high frequency long range radios and Thuraya satellite phones. “He retained operational command during the course of the conflict. He gave instructions to progress or maintain their position or perform specific tasks,” said Mr. Iverson.
He said Mr. Bemba’s decisions were never discussed and that he alone decided to send the troops to the Central African conflict. In addition, said Mr. Iverson, the accused often bypassed the military chain of command to issue orders to commanders in the field and had overall prerogative for appointments, promotions, and removal of the group’s military officers.
The prosecution said that according to the testimony of witness CHM-01, Mr. Bemba, from his headquarters in the Congolese town of Gbadolite, had better information and understanding of events in CAR than Central African authorities. He reportedly received regular intelligence briefings on the situation from the front line.
Furthermore, the fact that the chief of staff of the Central African armed forces traveled to Gbadolite to ask Mr. Bemba to direct MLC troops to advance north to engage enemy forces showed that the CAR army had no control over the Congolese troops. Mr. Iverson said even the country’s then embattled president, Ange-Félix Patassé, “was powerless over the MLC” and was “merely left to complain to Bemba” over the crimes his troops were committing.
In another demonstration that Mr. Bemba had control over the troops in the foreign country, when he ordered a probe into their alleged misconduct, seven soldiers were arrested and repatriated from the CAR to face a military tribunal back in Congo.
Massimo Scaliotti, another prosecution lawyer, said Mr. Bemba knew his troops were committing crimes and that is why he wrote letters to the United Nation‘s representative in the CAR to suggest a probe into the crimes. He added that although the MLC leader formed a probe team that investigated the crimes and led to the prosecution of “only seven low-ranking soldiers” for “pillaging a few goods,” the investigation and prosecution were flawed.
The aim of the exercise was “to whitewash the crimes in the CAR” and hoodwink the international community that Bemba had acted on crimes. The prosecution noted that the more serious crimes of rape and murder were never investigated.
Mr. Scaliotti said MLC soldiers were not trained in international humanitarian law and that although the group had a code of conduct, it was not widely known or disseminated because it was in French – a language that most soldiers did not understand.
Closing statements will continue Thursday morning with submissions from the legal representatives of the victims and the defense.
Source: a report by International Justice Monitor