CAR Prosecutor Tells Why Bemba Not Charged in Bangui

Court hears legal immunity meant that allegations against Congolese leader were never brought to court.

CAR Prosecutor Tells Why Bemba Not Charged in Bangui

Court hears legal immunity meant that allegations against Congolese leader were never brought to court.

The prosecutor-general of the Central African Republic, CAR, this week explained to judges that the authorities in his country did not prosecute Jean-Pierre Bemba for crimes committed by his troops because he had legal immunity inside CAR.

According to Firmin Feindiro, who was testifying in the trial of the Congolese opposition leader at the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, this immunity was acquired when Bemba became vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC in 2003.

He testified that a 2003 legal investigation, which he had led, concluded that Bemba’s troops were implicated in crimes committed in the CAR capital Bangui, during 2002 and 2003.

During the investigation, Feindiro said his team heard evidence from over 300 victims, three quarters of whom were rape victims. The team also heard cases of murder and looting, but these were fewer in number, he told judges.

Feindiro said the investigation, which began in August 2003 and lasted “several months”, also heard from nearly 300 additional witnesses to the atrocities.

The inquiry had sought to determine those criminally responsible for the various crimes committed, including rape, murder, theft, looting, and others of a financial and national intelligence nature.

Bemba’s troops were in CAR between October 2002 and March 2003 at the invitation of then president Ange-Félix Patassé, who had requested help in defeating a coup attempt by his former army chief-of-staff François Bozizé.

Bemba is on trial in The Hague for his alleged failure to prevent, stop, or punish his troops as they allegedly raped, murdered, and plundered civilians of the CAR.

According to Feindiro, the rape victims who gave evidence identified their attackers as members of Bemba’s rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC.

However, under cross-examination by defence lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba, Feindiro said the investigation had concluded that former president Ange-Félix Patassé had overall command of CAR armed forces and their MLC allies at the time of the 2002-2003 conflict.

He said that CAR military authorities were among the witnesses interviewed by his country’s investigators about an armed rebellion that sought to overthrow Patassé.

According to Feindiro, these witnesses claimed it was always Patassé who issued orders to his loyalist forces and allied groups, including the MLC, to undertake offensives against the rebellion.

Based on interviews with victims and witnesses, Feindiro had named individuals he deemed culpable for the crimes and which he included in a dossier that he gave to a judge in CAR.

The defence’s questioning focused on the dossier containing his conclusions, which ICC judges accepted this week as evidence in the trial.

In the dossier Feindiro stated that Patassé, as then CAR president, leader of the national armed forces, and chair of the High Council of the National Defence, was the hierarchical leader of the armed forces and the foreign mercenaries who fought on their side.

Feindiro stated in court that no charges relating to direct responsibility of Bemba for crimes or for the conduct of the MLC troops were brought before the examining judge.

He said that CAR prosecutors had concluded that Bemba and other alleged co-perpetrators were criminally responsible for the “intellectual responsibility” of the crimes.

He explained that this was because, whereas Bemba sent his troops to CAR and played a role in planning their campaign in that country, he was not on the ground to command the troops as they allegedly committed crimes against civilians.

However, when prosecutors presented the case to the judge, the charges were dismissed.

“He [Bemba] had become vice president of the Congo and therefore had immunity. Central African criminal proceedings at the time had not accepted the principle of universal jurisdiction,” the witness said.

Under questioning by prosecutor Ibrahim Yillah, Feindiro also stated that other individuals, including Patassé and his former prime minister Martin Ziguélé, were also not brought to trial as both had fled the country by the time the investigation was concluded.
Feindiro told the court that he filed an appeal against the decisions of the judge in relation to Bemba, but he did not state what the outcome of that appeal was.

The ICC opened its investigations into the CAR conflict in May 2007 following a referral from the Bangui government in December 2004. The trial began in November 2010.

Bemba denies the charges against him, arguing that once the MLC fighters crossed the border from the DRC into CAR, they came under Patassé’s command and that it is the former head of state who was responsible for the conduct of the troops.

During cross-examination, Bemba’s lawyer, Kilolo-Musamba, read out excerpts of Feindiro’s dossier in which Patassé was quoted as having said in a speech on November 29, 2002, that he had asked Bemba’s MLC troops to help him quash a coup attempt.

According to excerpts read out in court, which the witness confirmed, Patassé stated in that speech that he knew that crimes had been committed and that as a consequence, he was going to establish a commission to “assess all that”.

According to the dossier, the Feindiro-led investigation concluded that while the fact that Bemba sent his troops into CAR at the request of Patassé was not disputed, “he (Bemba) has not been shown to be involved in their use on the field and it is therefore fitting to exclude him [from criminal responsibility for the crimes committed by MLC troops]”.

Feindiro’s investigation concluded that once the MLC entered Bangui, they were under Patassé’s orders and under the direct command of General Ferdinand Bombayake who led the presidential guard - the United Presidential Security, USP.

According to Feindiro, the USP was the only one of the CAR armed forces which worked with the MLC. He said this was because Patassé entirely trusted Bombayake but had no trust in the Forces Armées Centrafricain, FACA, the country’s regular army, which he suspected of being part of the coup attempt against him.

The CAR prosecutor-general’s report concluded that Patassé coordinated the military operations against the insurgents.

“When an offensive or counter-offensive was organised, it was the president that organised it…This has been borne out by General Bombayake who maintained that it was Patassé who decided on everything and that he [Bombayake] would only implement the instructions received,” the witness’ dossier read.

The defence will continue its cross-examination of Feindiro on Monday next week.

Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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