Former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Democratic Republic of Congo goes on trial on Monday for rapes and murders allegedly committed by his troops, in a landmark trial set to last for months.
Bemba is charged with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities of about 1 500 fighters of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) between October 2002 and March 2003.
The 48-year-old will plead not guilty at the trial, which begins with the reading of the charges.
The trial is seen as a warning that leaders face prosecution for sexual violence committed by their soldiers.
After conquering rebel-held areas in neighbouring Central African Republic, MLC troops moved from house to house in small groups “raping, pillaging and killing”, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told journalists ahead of the trial.
“It is the first time in the history of international justice that a military commander is on trial on the basis of indirect criminal responsibility for rapes committed by his fighters,” an official in the prosecutor’s office said.
The case should serve as an “example” for others who lead fighters in war, he said.
“Military commanders who let their men rape must know that they can be prosecuted”, even if they are far removed from their soldiers on the ground.
400 rapes were recorded
Prosecutors say that about 400 rapes were recorded in Bangui, the CAR capital, in five months of fighting as the MLC helped then Central African president Ange-Felix Patasse resist a coup led by Francois Bozize, who is now president.
“People who allege they were raped include men and women, children and old people,” said Paolina Massidda, principal counsel in the ICC’s office of public counsel for victims.
“The victims’ ages vary from eight years to 70 years,” she said.
But Bemba’s defence lawyer, Aime Kilolo, said the MLC “fought in the uniform of the Central African Republic and under its flag, it was the Central African authorities who were in charge of command and discipline”.
So far, 135 victims have been authorised to participate in the trial, represented by two lawyers. Another 1 200 are waiting to be recognised as victims, who may also seek reparations.
Bemba was arrested in Brussels in May 2008 on an ICC warrant. The court was asked to take the case by Bozize. — Sapa-AFP