War crimes prosecutors accused former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba on Monday of using systematic rape to terrorize civilians suspected of supporting rebels during a bloody power struggle in neighboring Central African Republic.
Defense attorneys argued that Bemba’s troops were not under his command once they crossed the border, and that the prosecution failed to show that Bemba ordered his men to commit atrocities during the upheavals of 2002-2003.
The two sides outlined their arguments at a pretrial hearing at the International Criminal Court meant to assess whether there is enough evidence to put Bemba on trial. Judges scheduled four days of hearings, then have 60 days to decide whether to commit him to trial, seek more evidence or let him go.
In an opening statement, deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda previewed graphic testimony from one man who said he was sodomized in front of his family, then was forced to watch his wife and children abused.
“Bemba wanted to traumatize and terrorize the civilian population so they would not support the rebels,” Bensouda said. “He chose rape as his method.”
Bemba, founder of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, is accused of eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture and murder, during a five-month conflict that began in October 2002.
The charges stem from the 2002 request to Bemba by the then-president of Central African Republic, Ange-Felix Patasse, to help put down a coup led by his former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize. The coup succeeded and Bozize, now president, asked the International Criminal Court in 2004 to investigate the actions of Bemba’s militia.
Patasse was mentioned as a coconspirator in all the charges, but he has not been publicly indicted. He has been living in exile in Togo.
Defense counsel Karim Khan shifted any blame to Patasse, who had command of all forces in Central African Republic.
Khan said Bemba sent his forces to defend an elected government, and they then came under the control of that regime. He compared the intervention to the deployment of United Nations troops, which are no longer under the command of their home armies once they don blue helmets.
Bemba, 46, is the most senior political figure to be brought before the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal since it began work in 2002.
He was arrested in Belgium last May and extradited to The Hague in July.
Prosecutor Petra Kneuer said Bemba sent two battalions into the field, between 1,000-1,500 men. She said they continued their crimes even as they were withdrawing when it was clear Patasse had lost power.
“After they left, the civilian population was left with nothing: no possessions, no community, no dignity,” Kneuer said.
She cited one witness who saw trucks piled with looted goods and carrying eight half-naked women who were later “repeatedly raped in full public view.”
A university graduate and former chief executive of several companies, Bemba ruled a vast chunk of northeastern Congo as a warlord and rebel leader during that country’s 1998-2002 war. As part of a peace agreement, he became one of four vice presidents in a transition government that paved the way for elections in 2006.
Bemba came in second in the heated presidential race behind Joseph Kabila. He was elected a senator, but refused to dismantle his militia, leading to clashes with security forces that left at least 300 dead in March 2007. Facing charges of treason, he fled into exile in Portugal and Belgium.