Jean-Pierre Bemba
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Congolese Senator and former Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba again faces judges of the International Criminal Court in a new trial that started September 29. On trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003, he is also accused of having tampered with several witnesses during the trial. Four others are accused along with him: his former lawyer Aimé Kilolo; another defence team member Jean-Jacques Mangenda; member of parliament and secretary-general of Bemba’s MLC party Fidèle Babala; and Narcisse Arrido, a witness who was called to testify in Bemba’s defence.

Witness tampering ring

According to the prosecution, Bemba organized the witness tampering from his prison cell and it was implemented by Kilolo. The Belgian lawyer, in collaboration with Mangenda, is accused of inciting witnesses to lie or omit certain facts in their testimony to the Court, during which they are supposed to be in isolation. In order to do this, the lawyer is said to have slipped phones to three witnesses to allow communication, although they are not supposed to have them.  The prosecution says Kilolo gave money to one of the witnesses telling him that “this is not corruption, it is a gift from Jean-Pierre Bemba because you have agreed to testify in his favour”. According to the indictment, it was MP Fidèle Babala who managed the funding of money for witnesses, receiving between 400 and 700 dollars. Narcisse Arrido is accused of recruiting false witnesses, inciting them to lie by claiming to have been officers of Bemba’s militia sent to the CAR in 2002 and 2003.

At that time, then-president of the CAR Ange-Félix Patassé called for support from his “friend” Bemba to fight off the advancing rebels of François Bozizé, a former army officer who was trying to march on Bangui, which he did in March 2003. Bemba sent men from his militia group, the MLC, to reinforce troops loyal to Patassé, but his men are accused of  committing murder, rape and looting, for which Bemba is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. The former Congolese vice-president is not accused of ordering these crimes but rather of not having prevented them or punished his men for them, accusations that are more favourable to the accused. The last witness in the case testified in November 2013, just a few hours before the arrests of the four suspects in The Hague, Brussels, Kinshasa and Paris, for witness tampering.

Presidential ambitions

Like the first trial, this second one is likely to be watched closely in Kinshasa, especially as it comes just a year before presidential elections and Bemba, even though he is in prison, has never hidden his presidential ambitions. The ICC has not yet handed down its verdict in the first case, but the possibility of an acquittal continues to hang over Congolese politics.

This is not the only case of alleged witness tampering at the ICC. As well as the five accused in the Bemba case, the Prosecutor has also accused three Kenyans. The Open Society Justice Initiative said in a statement that it considers witness tampering a “very serious offense and it is critical that allegations of witness interference and bribery are prosecuted.” This is the only way to “ensure fair ICC trials and genuine access to justice for the victims of the crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction,” according to Mariana Pena, legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative.