The victims of alleged war crimes in the Central African Republic (CAR) will get their day in court on 22 November when the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba opens in The Hague.
More than two years after his arrest in Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) former vice-president is in the dock to answer charges that, in an earlier capacity as a rebel leader, he was responsible for a campaign of murder, rape and pillaging allegedly committed by his soldiers seven years ago in the CAR.
A DRC senator and wealthy businessman, Bemba is the first high-profile indictee to go on trial at the ICC, which has been criticized in the past for focusing on lower-ranking militia leaders like DRC’s Thomas Lubanga.
Bemba was vice-president in the DRC transitional government which followed the country’s 1998-2003 war and stood unsuccessfully for president in 2006. He fled to Portugal the following year after battles between his bodyguards and soldiers loyal to President Joseph Kabila.
The ICC accuses Bemba of criminal responsibility as a military commander for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) in CAR from 26 October 2002 to 15 March 2003.
The start of the trial has been twice postponed, most recently to hear arguments from his lawyers that Bemba had already been investigated in the CAR and could not be prosecuted again.
The judges were not convinced and around 37 prosecution witnesses are expected to testify in the coming months, many of whom were alleged rape victims.
The case focuses heavily on sexual violence allegedly committed by MLC soldiers who were invited into the CAR by the then-president Ange-Felix Patassé to help put down a coup. The coup leader, former army chief Francois Bozizé, overthrew Patassé and in 2004 called in the ICC to investigate.
At hearings last year to determine whether the case could proceed to trial, prosecution lawyers said that Patassé was Bemba’s co-perpetrator and that the two men were complicit in the five months of chaos that followed the MLC’s arrival in the country. Patassé was exiled to Togo but is now running for CAR president with elections scheduled for January.
Human rights groups are disappointed that the court has not pursued Patassé and others suspected of involvement in the CAR conflict, including Bozizé’s troops.
“Patassé is mentioned regularly [by the ICC], but he has not been charged,” said Mariana Pena, the International Federation for Human Rights permanent representative at the ICC. “It doesn’t look like they are actively investigating other perpetrators [in CAR]. This is a concern for victims in CAR who don’t understand why one has been tried and one has not.”
Bemba’s MLC troops have also been implicated in violence at home in DRC, including alleged rapes and killings in the Masamba Territory of Ituri District in 2002.
“The prosecutor has not said formally he isn’t going to prosecute Bemba [over these allegations], but his trial is starting and there have been no attempts over the last two or three years to charge him with crimes in DRC, so you read from the context there is no intention to prosecute,” said Pena.
In a written statement for IRIN, however, an ICC spokesperson did not rule out further legal action. “We continue working on the DRC situation as a whole and the situation in Ituri remains of interest to us. [In CAR] we are presently focusing on the Bemba trial. Future investigations or prosecutions in the CAR situation will be decided upon thereafter.”
Lawyers for Bemba did not return calls seeking comment but are expected to argue that the MLC soldiers were under Patassé’s command in CAR and obeyed his orders, not those of Bemba, who remained largely in the DRC.
Tough to prove
To win their case prosecutors must prove that those committing the crimes were Bemba’s subordinates, that he had knowledge of the crimes, and that he constantly failed to act or punish those crimes.
<br>An expert on international criminal law, who has defended clients charged with having command responsibility at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and also consulted with the Bemba defence team, said such cases can be tough to prove.
“Very often there was nothing formal about [the command structure]. There wasn’t a document, an order, a law that set up this structure,” said Geunael Mettraux.
“They are quite tricky to establish, because basically what you have to show is there was a chain of command linking the people who committed the crimes and the accused and that through that chain of command he would have been able to control them.”
And legal challenges are not the only battles ahead for the ICC.
ICC media operation
The court also has an obligation to communicate often complicated trial proceedings thousands of miles to populations in two central African countries with creaking-to-non-existent infrastructures. In DRC at least, ICC has been accused of failing to communicate with local people, leading to misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides.
Fadi El-Abdallah, legal outreach officer at the ICC, says the court will target local media in both countries – briefing journalists and providing programmes that explain the workings and mandate of the court. The opening day will be made available via satellite for Congolese TV audiences and distributed by DVD for those in the CAR.
Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson, a Central African lawyer representing 79 victims who are participating in the trial, said there is great interest in the case at home. “This trial… proves that even the powerful may one day be judged,” she said. “Everyone in CAR is waiting for this trial.”
Around 134 victims have been officially recognized by the court with applications from more than 1,000 others still awaiting a judicial decision. The ICC is the only international tribunal that gives victims of alleged crimes who are not called as witnesses a formal role in court proceedings. In this case they will be allowed to participate via Douzima-Lawson and another lawyer who will make opening and closing remarks and question witnesses when deemed appropriate by judges.
“Victims want their voices to be heard. They want their story to be told,” said Paolina Massidda, head of the ICC’s Office of the Public Counsel for Victims. “This is very important for them, because they have the feeling that someone cares for them. They have the feeling that what happened to them will be heard in a court of law.”
Theme (s): Conflict,
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]