The Hague, November 26, 2010 (FH) - Prosecution first witness in Jean-Pierre Bemba's trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) was called to the stand on Tuesday.

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The Congolese senator and President of Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC) is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes for murders, rapes and pillaging committed by his troops in Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003.

The witness, code-named "Witness 38", testified mostly behind closed doors. When he appeared in public, he stood behind curtains and his voice was modified.

"Witness 38" explained he was in the northern suburbs of Bangui when he saw Bemba's troops for the first time. The "Banyamulenge" were easy to identify, he said, because they spoke lingala and wore plastic boots and berets of different colors.

When ICC Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the witness about the provenance of the soldiers' weapons, he answered that "they came from the Central African government".

Ange-Félix Patassé, CAR President at the time of the alleged facts, has not been indicted by the Prosecution. After years in exile, he is now officially candidate for the upcoming Presidential election, scheduled for January 2011.

"Witness 38"also testified seeing MLC soldiers committing two murders and a child's rape. "A woman brought me her 8 or 9 years old daughter, bleeding after being raped", he said crying. "They raped her in front of her mother, in their house".

759 victims are currently part of the trial. 653 other victims are awaiting an answer from the Court after requesting to be represented.

Peter Haynes cross-examined the witness for the Defence team. When he tried to establish the responsibility of the CAR army, "Witness 38" answered: "Our army was even more divided with the arrival of Mr. Bemba's rebellion. It was humiliated by the smallest MLC soldier. It was wiped out".

He also denied that the MLC had come to help the country. "They were not a freedom movement but rather an invasion force", he insisted.

Jean-Pierre Bemba followed attentively the whole testimony.


© Hirondelle News Agency