ICC convicts Congolese ex-vice president for witness tampering

ICC convicts Congolese ex-vice president for witness tampering©ICC
Bemba at his initial appearance before the ICC in 2013
3 min 10Approximate reading time

On October 19, the International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down its first judgment for offences against the administration of justice. Former Congolese Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba and four others were all found guilty. The sentence is not expected for several weeks.

Unsmiling, badly shaven and holding a hand to his face, Jean-Pierre Bemba seemed overwhelmed.  The former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had not appeared before the Court since July, when he was sentenced to 18 years in jail for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002and 2003. In November 2013, after the hearing of the last witness in the crimes against humanity trial, four of the five accused for offences against the administration of justice were arrested in Paris, Brussels, Kinshasa and The Hague. Bemba was already in prison. At the opening of the hearing in the second case on October 19,  the judges said that Bemba, known to his supporters as “the Chairman”, had bribed 14 of his witnesses. Bemba, his lawyer at the time Aimé Kilolo and defence team member Jean-Jacques Mangenda drew up a “common plan” to persuade witnesses to testify for him, even if it meant lying, they said.  In return, they received sums of between 600 and 800 Euros, computer equipment and, in some cases, promises of a passport to Europe.

“Painting the colour” 

For months, the three men tried to hide their illicit activities. The funds were transferred with the help of intermediaries. The fourth accused, Congolese MP Fidèle Babala, who is close to the accused, was found guilty of having transferred money to the wife of a witness and the daughter of another. “It’s good to grease people’s palms,” he is said to have told Bemba on the telephone. In their conversations, they used coded language, from which the judges read some passages at the hearing. “Painting the colour” meant preparing the witness. “Now you see the problem,” Kilolo allegedly said on the phone after the hearing of one witness. “I have always said to the client to paint the colour again, because people forget.” According to the Court, witnesses were prepared and made to say things again if they were not up to scratch. This is contrary to Court rules, since the parties are banned from speaking to witnesses once they have started their testimony, which sometimes lasts for days. Aimé Kilolo took care to provide them with mobile phones so he could communicate with them “early in the morning and late at night”. Four of these witnesses were recruited by Narcisse Arido, one of the five accused. They were supposed to pretend to be officers. Narcisse Arido provided them with “military insignia”. 

Prosecution tries to capitalize

After the judgment summary was read out, the five men were invited to stand. “Guilty of tampering with witnesses,” the presiding judge said to Bemba, evoking the said witnesses’ pseudonyms, such as D2, D3 and D4. The ex-vice president looked up surprised at each one, but seemed overwhelmed. Frowning, Aimé Kilolo awaited his verdict in turn, followed by the three other accused. The five men face up to five years in prison and a fine proportionate to their assets. The sentence is to be decided after further hearings and a separate decision. It is not expected for at least several weeks. Meanwhile, on the Prosecution bench, prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye tried to capitalize on this victory by asking the judges to order that the accused all be placed in detention. He argued that there was no circumstance to justify that they be left free. One by one, their lawyers objected. Four of the accused (all apart from Bemba) are enjoying a conditional freedom and already spent 11 months in preventive detention at the beginning of the case. The lawyers claimed that none of them plan to run away. “A criminal trial is not a game of hide and seek,” said one of Aimé Kilolo’s lawyers. “What is the risk? If there is one, the Prosecutor must produce evidence.” Another defence lawyer said they had been found guilty of a criminal offence, not a serious crime, and that they remained innocent unless proven guilty, up to the Appeals decision. A third argued that they had already served their sentence.   

Judges leave four free, for now

After a few minutes of deliberation, the judges threw out the Prosecutor’s request. The four remain free for now. Only Bemba was returned to the ICC prison in Scheveningen, The Hague, to continue serving his 18-year sentence for crimes against humanity in the CAR. During the hearing, the three judges described these as crimes “of the highest importance” which could “prevent the Court from fulfilling its mandate”. Then, as if to reassure the lawyers shaken by the conviction of one of their own, they affirmed that “this is not a trial against the Defence”, that they do not condemn “legitimate defence strategies” but only “criminal conduct” which undermines the “administration of justice”. The message is wider. It is to stop corruption or intimidation of witnesses called to testify.