After a lot of delays and setbacks, the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), resumed on the 14th of August, 2012 at the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is the first time the Prosecutor is opening an investigation in which allegations of sexual crimes far outnumber alleged killings.
Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in 2008 in response to a warrant from the ICC, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes relating to alleged MLC atrocities committed in the Central African Republic. His trial in The Hague began on November 22, 2010.
The Pre-Trial Chamber decided on June 15, 2009 that there was enough evidence to proceed to a full trial of Mr. Bemba on five criminal counts related to events in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003.
Two of these charges are for crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three for war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). The Prosecutor, Senior Trial Attorney Petra Kneuer, alleges that Mr. Bemba is responsible for these crimes carried out by his MLC militia in various locations in the Central African Repbulic.
This is the first case before the ICC where three female judges have sat on the bench. The presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner from Brazil, has expertise and training in women’s rights. Her colleagues are Judge Kuniko Ozaki from Japan and Judge Joyce Aluoch from Kenya. Thus, female judges from Latin America, Asia, and Africa will adjudicate this historic ICC trial focused on gender crimes.
Involvment of the MLC militia in the Central African Republic
In 2002 Ange-Félix Patassé, President of the Central African Republic from 1993 until 2003, sought help from different militia groups, including Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC, against his former chief of staff, François Bozizé. MLC forces crossed the border from the DRC, succeeding in pushing Bozizé’s forces back to the north of the capital. For its part, the MLC remained in CAR for five months. The Prosecutor alleges that MLC fighters went on a rampage, committing crimes of murder, rape and pillaging against residents of CAR. According to reports from international organizations, human rights organizations and journalists, civilians in the CAR have continued to suffer immensely from violence after 2003. There are an estimated 100,000 CAR refugees in Cameroon, Chad and Sudan, and another 100,000 who are internally displaced. There have been allegations of atrocities committed by various rebel factions and by government forces.
Rape as a weapon of war
According to the Prosecutor, “The allegations of sexual crimes are detailed and substantiated. The information we have now suggests that the rape of civilians was committed in numbers that cannot be ignored under international law.”
André Tabo, an expert witness, in April testified on the use of rape as a tool of war. The head of the psychiatry department at the national university hospital in Bangui, he stated that Congolese soldiers raped Central African women for numerous reasons: They were “punishing” them for supporting rebels, considered them “attractive war booty,” wanted to destabilize enemy troops, and for sexual release. He said that since the troops were out of control, they considered that they could do whatever they wanted.
Dr. Tabo’s said amongst 512 rape survivors he worked with, 42 percent had been raped in front of family members. He said 81 of them were found to be HIV-positive, ten of them having been infected during the rape. According to the expert, all survivors said their attackers were MLC fighters.
The proceeding of this case will definitely be a landmark for applying justice and insuring accountability for perpetrators of rape and other crimes of sexual violence in conflict.
For an update on the trial, please check out the monitoring site of the trial, run by the Open Society Justice Initiative.