Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo on Monday proclaimed innocence as he faces his first day of trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
By Thijs Bouwknegt
Bemba, the most high profile defendant facing justice at the ICC, is accused of three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo described in his opening statement in The Hague how Bemba’s troops committed widespread rape, pillage and murder.
“These were not isolated incidents. They were committed by Bemba’s troops in a widespread and organised manner.”
Ocampo said Bemba’s militia “stole from the poorest of one of the poorest people in the world. The mass rapes were crimes of domination and humiliation, directed not only against women but also men with authority.”
“Those who resisted the rapes or pillages, were killed.” Bemba, the prosecutor said, chose not to prevent his troops from committing these atrocities.
Ocampo underlined the importance of the trial. “This is the first trial at the ICC that concerns commander’s responsibility.”
“Unlike any other court, the ICC’s decision will influence the behaviour of thousands of military commanders of 114 stat parties,” Ocampo said, pointing out that “ the difference between a military commander and a criminal is respect for the law.”
Throughout the session the bulky Bemba, current DR Congo senator and former business tycoon, shifted uneasily in his seat. Wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, he remained expressionless as the prosecution stated their case against him.
“Through me, he (Bemba) is pleading not guilty,” Nkwebe Richard Liriss, Bemba’s principal defence counsel, told the court.
Bemba was at the helm of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) when the militia members raped, pillaged and killed civilians in the CAR.
He got involved in the CAR in 2002 when President Ange-Félix Patassé asked him to help fight a rebellion by then-General François Bozizé. During the brutal conflict that unfolded all sides committed large-scale human rights violations against civilians. Bemba’s troops - better known in the CAR as Banyamulengue - left the country in March 2003. Bozizé took power after a coup while Pattasé went into exile in Togo.
Bemba laid down his weapons in 2003 and was elected one of the four vice-presidents within the Congolese transitional government until he put himself forward for the presidential election in 2006. He lost the run-off against Joseph Kabila but was elected senator in January 2007. Relations between him and Kabila soured, culminating in clashes between the army and Bemba’s militia later that year. Bemba fled to Portugal, and was arrested a year later in Brussels.
His trial is closely followed by the public in both DR Congo and the CAR. While many applaud Bemba’s trial, he still enjoys considerable support among the Congolese.
Also notable in the trial is that 759 victims of Bemba’s alleged atrocities are authorised to take part in the trial. “This is the first time in the history of the ICC that such numerous victims are allowed to participate,” Paolina Massida, head of the Office of Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV), said at a press conference at the ICC shortly before the trial started.
The court is considering applications of close to 700 other victims who also wish to participate in the trial.
“These men, women and children were traumatised, and still have to live with these traumas in their daily lives,” Masseda said. “Participation in this trial is a right of the victims. It gives them a voice, a way of showing that what happened was inexcusable.”
Masseda further said that the victims also have the right to claim reparations.
Meanwhile, Bemba’s defence team appeared confident and defiant. “I regret to tell you that you will be viewing for the first time, and let us hope for the last time, the most unfair trial that international justice has ever seen,” Nkwebe Richard Liriss, Bemba’s principal defence counsel, told Monday’s press conference.
“Bemba is very calm, very serene. He will show that at no time can he be associated with the looting or murders, nor did he have any effective control of the troops on the ground,” Liriss said. “Mr. Bemba will be cleared of all the charges against him.”
The trial will resume on Tuesday. The prosecution said that dozens of witnesses will be heard throughout the trial, including victims, former officials and expert witnesses.