DR Congo ex-vice president goes on trial for atrocities

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DR Congo ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba goes on trial Monday for rapes and murders allegedly committed by his troops, in a case seen as a warning that leaders will be prosecuted for the sexual violence of their soldiers.

Around 1,500 fighters terrorised the civilian population of the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003 with children as young as eight and the elderly among the victims, prosecutors say.

After conquering areas rebel-held areas, the troops moved from house to house in small groups "raping, pillaging and killing", International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told journalists ahead of the trial which is scheduled to last several months.

Bemba, 48, is charged with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities.

Members of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) allegedly perpetrated the offences helping troops of the then Central African Republic (CAR) president Ange-Felix Patasse resist a coup led by Francois Bozize.

"It is the first time in the history of international justice that a military commander is on trial on the basis of indirect criminal responsibility for rapes committed by his fighters," an official in the prosecutor's office told AFP.

The case should serve as an "example" for others who lead fighters in war, he said.

"Military commanders who let their men rape must know that they can be prosecuted" even if they are far removed from their soldiers on the ground.

Prosecutors say that about 400 rapes were recorded in Bangui, the CAR capital, in five months of fighting.

"People who allege they were raped include men and women, children and old people," said Paolina Massidda, principal counsel in the ICC's office of public counsel for victims.

"The victims' ages vary from eight years to 70 years," she told AFP.

Bemba was "the MLC president and the supreme authority, treating the MLC as his own enterprise," according to the charge sheet.

"Bemba was the sole decision-making authority who exercised control over all military matters."

But his defence lawyer, Aime Kilolo, said the MLC "fought in the uniform of the Central African Republic and under its flag, it was the Central African authorities who were in charge of command and discipline."

So far, 135 victims have been authorised to participate in the trial, represented by two lawyers. Another 1,200 others are waiting to be recognised as victims, who may also seek reparations.

A business tycoon, Bemba left the DR Congo in 2007 after losing presidential elections held during a political transition that followed the country's 1998-2003 civil war.

He had been one of four transitional vice presidents before briefly leading the opposition, but was forced into exile when government forces tried to disarm his private militia in clashes that killed 300 people.

He was arrested in Brussels in May 2008 on an ICC warrant. The court was asked to take the case by Bozize, now president.

Bemba's request for legal aid has been denied by the court, which froze his assets but is advancing the 30,150 euros (about 41,000 dollars) in monthly legal fees that he will have to pay back.

© 2010 AFP

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