DRC: Jean-Pierre Bemba denies ICC war crimes charges

Jean-Pierre BembaBy Nangayi Guyson in (KAMPALA UGANDA) – The Hague -AP- The former vice-president  Jean-Pierre Bemba of  Democratic Republic of Congo denies murder, rape and pillage in the Central African Republic (CAR) at the start of his war crimes trial, in a case the chief prosecutor says will define a commander’s legal responsibility to control his troops.

The trial of Bemba, 48, 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 presidential candidate in the DRC’s next election, is the most senior political figure in the court’s custody.

“The International Criminal Court’s decision will influence the behaviour of thousands of military commanders” around the world, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told the three-judge panel.

Wearing a dark grey suit and blue tie, Bemba sat impassively with his arms crossed in front of him as his lawyer pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.

Prosecutors say Bemba allowed 1 500 members of 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 DRC’s former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.

Terrorised civilians

Moreno Ocampo said small gangs of Bemba’s troops systematically invaded homes to terrorise civilians, aiming to prevent them joining the rebellion.

“They stole all possessions that could be carried off and raped women, girls, elders regardless of their age. If the civilians resisted the rape or pillaging, they were killed,” he said.

The rapes “were crimes of domination and humiliation” targeting women and men in positions of power, he added.

Moreno Ocampo said that Bemba did not explicitly order the atrocities but deliberately turned a blind eye to them, giving troops “license to attack civilians”.

“As superior, Jean-Pierre Bemba is even more responsible than his subordinates,” Moreno Ocampo said. “A commander who lets his troops carry out such criminal tactics is hundreds of times more dangerous than any single rapist.”

Margot Wallstrom, the UN special representative for sexual violence in conflict, said the trial would help shatter the silence that surrounds mass rape used as a weapon, which she said is normally met with “mass impunity”.

“It is not that wartime rape is new,” Wallstrom told reporters at the courthouse. “What is new is the willingness of the international community to address it, not as random acts of a few renegade soldiers but as a calculated crime.”

Prosecutors plan to call up to 40 witnesses, including more than a dozen rape victims, and expect to take six months to present their evidence.

Lawyers insist he is innocent

Bemba’s lawyers insist he is innocent and that he tried to investigate and prosecute officers responsible for the atrocities. Moreno Ocampo dismissed those efforts as “sham trials”.

One of Bemba’s lawyers, Aime Kilolo, said his client was “very serene” on the eve of the trial.

“He will show that at no time could he be associated with allowing rapes or murders,” Kilolo said. “Nor was he associated with men in the field, nor did he have effective control of troops, nor was he responsible for discipline.”

Bemba’s lead lawyer, Nkwebe Liriss, said the court had frozen Bemba’s assets and not provided his defence team with enough money to carry out any investigations.

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

The charges “should give pause to leaders of armed groups who pursue political power through violence”, Wallstrom said.

Bemba ruled a large part of the DRC during that country’s 1998-2002 war with support from neighbouring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of DRC’s four vice presidents.

He came second in a presidential election in 2006 behind Joseph Kabila. He was elected a senator but refused to dismantle his militia, which led 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.

However, Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is also being tried at the The Hague but is being prosecuted by a special war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, rather than the ICC.

The ICC was established as a permanent court, so a special tribunal did not have to be set up after each conflict in which war crimes were allegedly committed.