THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went on trial at the International Criminal Court Monday accused of letting his troops rape and kill in the Central African Republic.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, 48, is the most senior political leader to be detained so far by the ICC. He is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.
Bemba is accused over the sending of troops into the Central African Republic between late 2002 and early 2003 at the request of Ange-Felix Patasse, the republic’s president at the time, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to put down coup attempts.
Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Bemba sent about 1,500 troops into the CAR, where they committed hundreds of rapes and pillaged property to spread terror and devastate communities, and that Bemba failed to control his forces.
“Bemba’s troops stole the possessions of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world,” Moreno-Ocampo said. “Women were raped systematically to assert dominance and to shatter resistance. Men were raped in public to destroy their authority and their capacity to lead.”
Bemba, arms crossed, showed no emotion as he pleaded not guilty through lead defence lawyer Nkwebe Liriss.
“You will be viewing for the first time, and let us hope the last time, the most unfair trial that international justice has ever seen,” Liriss earlier told journalists outside the court.
He raised concerns about the detention of Bemba, the freezing of his assets and a lack of sufficient financing provided by the court for his defence.
Speaking in court, Liriss attacked the credibility of a “partial, botched” investigation by the prosecution, challenging claims that Bemba had “command and control” of his troops.
He said “unscrupulous politicians” were using the court in the name of justice to “do away with” one of their opponents, who was not anywhere near the battlefield in the CAR.
Many in the DRC believe Bemba would be a strong presidential contender at the 2011-2012 elections and pro-Bemba supporters had assembled inside the ICC Monday.
A defence lawyer, however, said Bemba has not yet decided whether he would run for election if acquitted by the ICC.
“I want Bemba to be president,” said Lukusa Mambu, 28, who makes a living shining shoes on the streets of Kinshasa.
“He’s not a war criminal — he’s good at speaking to the people and will improve the social welfare of the country. They arrested him because they don’t want him to succeed.”
Outside the court, Margot Wallstrom, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said the trial signalled no leader is above the law and that respecting women’s rights in warfare is an “obligation not an aspiration.”
“This trial represents a milestone in the history of international criminal justice and this is against the backdrop of wartime sexual violence having been one of history’s greatest silences and the world’s least condemned war crime,” she said.
Brigid Inder at the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice, which documented the rapes in the CAR, said many women were “rejected by their families, ostracised by the communities, contracted HIV and gave birth to children as a result of rape.”
Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, one of two lawyers representing 579 victims allowed to present testimony to the court and to seek reparations, said “the hour of truth has arrived.”
Patasse was forced out of power in the 2002-2003 war by Francois Bozize, who later won a 2005 presidential election.
Defence lawyers for Bemba, who was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and transferred to the ICC in The Hague, have asked why neither Patasse nor Bozize have been indicted by the ICC.
The start of the trial was broadcast via a satellite link-up on state television in the DRC. Bemba is still very popular in the west of the country, where he scored well in the 2006 presidential election against President Joseph Kabila.
One western diplomat said “anti-Kabila instability” would be very likely around the presidential elections if Bemba were to return to the DRC.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Kinshasa; Editing by Ron Askew and Jan Harvey