Arusha, November 28, 2013 (FH) – Congolese Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, his lawyer and a Congolese MP from his party made their initial appearance Wednesday afternoon before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for suspected witness tampering.

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According to the Prosecutor, the witness tampering was done in the context of Bemba’s main trial before the ICC for crimes against humanity committed in 2002-2003 in the Central African Republic by fighters of his MLC former rebel movement. The MLC (Movement for the Liberation of Congo) is now one of the main political parties in opposition to President Joseph Kabila.

“I believe I understand well the charges brought against me but I am very surprised,” Bemba told the Court. His lawyer Aimé Kilolo said he was amazed that the ICC Prosecutor had decided to arrest him rather than just summoning him to appear. “I am in The Hague most of the time in the ICC building where I have my office,” he said. Kilolo was arrested in Brussels at the weekend.

MLC Member of Parliament Babala Wandu protested the way he had been arrested, saying it was done by 30 policemen at 2.00 on Sunday morning in front of his children. After his transfer to The Hague, his party suspended his participation in the work of the Congolese parliament. Babala Wandu was principal private secretary to Bemba when the former rebel leader was Vice-President of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003-2006.

After this initial appearance, the Court will hold confirmation of charges hearings to determine of there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial for witness tampering. 

Mangenda Kabongo, who is a member of Bemba’s defence team, and defence witness Narcisse Arido have also been arrested for suspected witness tampering in the Bemba case. They will be transferred to the ICC following the necessary procedures in the Netherlands and France, where they were detained.

These arrests for suspected witness tampering are a first for the ICC. The Court has also issued an arrest warrant for a Kenyan journalist for similar allegations related to the trial of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, but the suspect is still on the run.