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10 Jan 2009 08:40
International Criminal Court judges will hear prosecution evidence next week in favour of a war crimes trial for Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who will in turn argue for charges to be dropped.
The four-day “confirmation of charges” hearing that starts in front of a pre-trial chamber on Monday will seek to ensure there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the former Democratic Republic of Congo
By approving the charge sheet filed by prosecutors, judges will pave the way for Bemba to go on trial.
Bemba, arrested on an ICC warrant in Brussels last May, is charged with five counts of war crimes and three of crimes against humanity for rape, torture, pillaging and murder committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) militia group between 2002 and 2003.
The charges relate to the MLC fighting a coup in the Central African Republic at the behest of then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
The provisional charge sheet alleges that MLC combatants attacked the civilian population, committing rape and torture on “a systematic or widespread scale”.
“This hearing is an opportunity to show that the real aim of all these judicial manoeuvres is the political destruction of Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba,” said his advocate Aime Kilolo-Musamba.
As leader of the MLC, today the major opposition group in the DRC, Bemba lost 2006 presidential elections to Joseph Kabila.
He went into exile in April 2007 following a shoot-out with the presidential guard in the DRC which killed more than 200 people.
Monday’s hearing will open with a summary by the prosecutor of the crimes alleged against the 46-year-old Bemba, followed by a statement by a legal representative for 54 victims and finally Bemba’s lawyers.
“It is absolutely nonsensical to claim that Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba can be held responsible for the alleged crimes committed in the Central African Republic,” said Kilolo-Musamba.
“We demand a dismissal of the case.”
According to Kilolo-Musamba, the prosecution has filed 10 000 pages of documents to back its case.
Fearful that Bemba may influence witnesses, a judge of the tribunal has twice rejected requests that he be freed pending trial.
Bemba is being held at a Dutch prison in Scheveningen, a sea-side suburb of The Hague, where he receives on average three visits a week
from his wife who lives in Brussels.
Bemba’s five children, four of them minors, come to see him on weekends, said the advocate.
Bemba is the first accused before the ICC to have to pay for his own defence team of six people, having been been found by the tribunal not to be indigent and thus not qualifying for support.
Some of his assets, including a bank account in Portugal, has been frozen at the prosecutor’s request.
But the freeze had to be partly lifted recently to allow Bemba to pay lawyers’ costs, which had accumulated to €190 000 from the time of his arrest in May to September, according to documents before the court.
The ICC is the first permanent world court set up to judge war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
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