Bemba trial will set precedent, says prosecutor

2010-11-22 13:08

The Hague, Netherlands – The war crimes trial of a former vice president of Congo beginning Monday will define the legal responsibility of a commander in every army to control his troops, the chief prosecutor said.

The trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba on charges of rape, murder and pillaging is only the third to get under way at the International Criminal Court since it began work in 2002.

Bemba, who had been seen as a potential candidate for the presidency in Congo’s next election, is the most senior political figure in the court’s custody.

Prosecutors say Bemba allowed his personal militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, to run amok in Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 after the country’s then-president, Ange-Feliz Patasse, asked for its help in an ultimately unsuccessful fight against rebels led by the country’s former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.

Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said Bemba’s case will set a precedent for the conduct of war anywhere.

“The judges’ definition of the responsibilities of a commander will be a warning for all the military commanders in the world,” Moreno Ocampo told reporters hours before the court was to convene.

“They have to understand what is legal and what is illegal,” he said. “The law makes a difference between a commander and a criminal.”

He said the trial would shine a spotlight on the plight of girls, women and men raped in Central African Republic.

It was a “crime of domination and humiliation,” he said.

Prosecutors say Bemba’s troops aimed to terrorise civilians into not supporting Bozize’s rebels.

“He chose rape as his method,” deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges at a preliminary hearing.

Bensouda cited one unidentified witness, who said three of Bemba’s men burst into his home firing their weapons, forced him to his knees as his family watched, then sodomised him for four hours.

“In front of my eyes they abused my wife,” she quoted the witness as saying. “After they finished with my wife, they came for my kids.”

Prosecutors will call up to 40 witnesses at the trial and more than a dozen are victims of rapes. They expect to take around six months to present their evidence.

Bemba’s lawyers say he had no command of his troops once they crossed the Oubangui River into Patasse’s country and say he tried to investigate and prosecute officers responsible for atrocities.

In written arguments to the court, they say 48-year-old Bemba “strenuously denies a breach of command responsibility”.

Activists hope the trial will send a message to fighters and their commanders around the world that using rape as a weapon will be punished.

Brigid Inder, executive director of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, said the trial should show women “that crimes of sexual violence are important enough to prosecute those who commit such acts” and demonstrate to military and militia leaders “that should they fail to prevent or punish subordinates for gender-based crimes, they will be held accountable”.

Bemba has not yet entered pleas to three counts of war crimes and two crimes against humanity covering murder, rape and pillaging by his forces.

Moreno Ocampo said last week Bemba had failed in his obligation to “prevent, repress and eventually punish” crimes by his troops.

“On the contrary, we will show how he intentionally avoided any control,” the prosecutor said. “Carte blanche was the policy.”

Bemba ruled a large part of Congo during that country’s 1998-2002 war, with support from neighbouring Uganda.

After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of the country’s four vice presidents in a reunited Congo.

He came second in a presidential election in 2006 behind Joseph Kabila. He was elected a senator, but refused to dismantle his militia, leading to clashes with security forces that left at least 300 dead in March 2007. Facing charges of treason, he fled into exile in Portugal and Belgium.

Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the court in The Hague in July 2008.

Bozize’s coup in Central African Republic was successful and he replaced Patasse as president in 2003.

Defence lawyers tried unsuccessfully to have the case dismissed, saying that Bemba had already been investigated for the same offences in Central African Republic and that his political opponents there and in Congo wanted him sent to The Hague for trial to get him out of the way.

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