War crimes trial of DR Congo's Bemba gets under way

22nd November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba went on trial before the world's top war crimes court here Monday, with prosecutors blaming him for his private army's campaign of rape and killing in the Central African Republic.

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).

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in his opening statement that Bemba had "knowingly permitted" his troops to commit hundreds of rapes, pillaging and killing.

"Groups of two or three soldiers invaded houses, one by one. They raped women ... regardless of their age. When civilians resisted, they were killed," he said.

"Jean-Pierre Bemba was the military commander with effective authority and control over the troops that committed these crimes," he said.

"The massive rapes were not only sexually motivated, they were crimes of domination and humiliation, directed against women but also against men with authority," he said.

Bemba, wearing a navy blue suit with a sky blue tie, took his seat in the courtroom behind his legal team, as Brazilian judge Sylvia Steiner opened the first session.

When asked if he understood the five charges against him, his lawyer Nkwebe Liriss responded that he did and was pleading not guilty.

The 48-year-old, who was arrested in Brussels in 2008, risks life behind bars.

Prosecutors have said the trial will serve to define the legal responsibility of commanders in every army to control their troops.

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.

The trial is the first in the history of international justice in which 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 ahead of Monday's hearing.

"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 told reporters.

Bemba fled DR Congo in 2007, after coming second to Joseph Kabila in a presidential election, and subsequently refused 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

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