War crimes trial of DR Congo's Bemba gets under way
The Democratic Republic of Congo's former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba went on trial before the International Criminal Court here Monday on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Bemba is specifically charged with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities of about 1,500 fighters of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) between October 2002 and March 2003 in the Central African Republic (CAR).
"We are starting the first session," announced the court's Brazilian judge Sylvia Steiner after Bemba, wearing a navy blue suit with a sky blue tie, took his seat in the courtroom behind his legal team.
The 48-year-old, who is pleading not guilty, is the most senior political figure to be brought before the court which began work in 2002.
Prosecutors have said the trial will serve to define the legal responsibility of commanders in every army to control their troops.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told journalists ahead of the trial that Bemba's personal militia conquered rebel-held areas in neighbouring Central African Republic before running amok, "raping, pillaging and killing".
It was a "crime of domination and humiliation," Moreno-Ocampo told a press conference hours before the opening of the trial.
Bemba, a top political figure in neighbouring DR Congo, sent 1,500 of his troops into the CAR after the country's then president Ange-Felix Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by the country's former armed forces chief Francois Bozize.
Bemba, who was arrested in Brussels in 2008, will plead not guilty to the charges, for which he risks life in prison.
The trial is the first in the history of international justice in whcih a military commander is on trial on the basis of indirect criminal responsibility for rapes committed by his fighters, prosecutors say.
They say about 400 rapes were recorded in Bangui, the CAR capital, in five months of fighting
The victims' ages range from eight year-old children to 70.
Bemba's troops were responsible for "the most important crimes" committed in the CAR during the fighting, Moreno-Ocampo told journalists.
"At the beginning we were thinking that Bemba and Patasse were the most responsible, but evidence showed that the troops who committed the crimes where under the control of Bemba," the chief prosecutor said.
Bemba fled DR Congo in 2007, after coming second to Joseph Kabila in a presidential election, and subsequently refusing to disband his militia, leading to clashes that left hundreds dead.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to give evidence, a process which is expected to take six months.
The court has authorised a total of 759 victims to participate in the trial, a figure that is likely to grow as it has a further 500 applications to examine, according to the court's registrar Sylvana Arbia.
"It's the first time in the history of international justice that such a large group of people has been authorised to participate," said Paolina Massidda of the ICC's office of public counsel for victims.
Until his arrest in Brussels in May, 2008, under an ICC international arrest warrant, Bemba lived between Portugal and Belgium in what he called "forced exile", while insisting he intended to return home to take up an opposition role.
The court was asked to take the case by Bozize.
© 2010 AFP