Witnesses Vanish in Congo Leader's Human-Rights Trial

Three years later, and the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo at the International Criminal Court continues to drag on. The ICC arrested Bemba, former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader the Congolese militia group and political party “Movement for the Liberation of Congo” (MLC), in 2008 for atrocities committed by his militia in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003, and his trial began in 2010.

The five counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes against Bemba include systematic and widespread murder, rape, and pillaging carried out by his MLC militia in CAR. The MLC was recruited by former Central African Republic President Ange-Felix Patasse to help put down a coup attempt in his country. Although Bemba was not in CAR at the time of the crimes, he bears the responsibility for them as commander of the militia.

The trial, held in The Hague, a world away from the remote and impoverished jungle villages of Central Africa where the crimes took place, has hit snag after snag. Not least among the proceeding’s problems is the increasing number of defense witnesses who have  disappeared from court, or have failed to show at all. 

In the past weeks, proceedings have repeatedly been cancelled and delayed due to the unavailability of defense witnesses. Having already cut the number of witnesses it intends to call from 63 down to 45, the defense may have to cut that further. On Monday, after weeks of delays due to “medical and logistical difficulties” on behalf of the witness “D04-15,” the witness was scheduled to give testimony remotely via video link, but the proceedings were abruptly cancelled. The court will resume August 12 after its summer recess. 

In September, witness “D04-07,” who had been testifying at The Hague for three days, mysteriously vanished before completing his testimony. The following week, another witness failed to a board his plane to The Hague and was deemed “untraceable.” Witness “D04-07” was a former CAR armed forces intelligence officer and testified about the logistical support the MLC provided to CAR. He also testified that CAR, not Bemba, was the primary commander controlling the criminal militia. 

Given the brevity of the allegations, it is no wonder that these defense witnesses may be fearful of laying the guilt on the former CAR administration, an administration that many of these witnesses, especially the former military intelligence officer, would have close ties with.

The U.S., which has refused to sign on to the ICC charter, has criticized the court for not providing adequate protections for the accused. Organizations like Human Rights Watch disagree, claiming the ICC provides fair trials. Other critics insist that the court is a tool of Western imperialism imposed upon developing countries, and point out its entirely African case docket.

The ICC’s Director of Court Services, Marc Dubuisson, said that while the court offers witness protection measures, they received no specific requests for protective services from the defense in this trial. As a result, even thought the witnesses were protected in court, other security concerns may have arisen outside of the court and in their home countries of residence. Due to the inconvenience and security issues associated with international travel, the court is considering moving operations from The Hague to Arusha, Tanzania (where the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda is also located), in an effort to expedite the proceedings.

Bemba’s trial illustrates some of the many challenges that the court will continue to face in prosecuting suspected war criminals. The slow-moving nature of the court, the unavailability of witnesses, travel issues, and potential political repercussions of testimonies and decisions, are all factors that are sure to come into play during the upcoming high-profile trial of M23 warlord Bosco Ntganda, scheduled to begin this September.