The high ambitions of the International Criminal Court and the harsh reality

Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was the first person tried for command responsibility by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The military commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) was sentenced to 18 years in prison for crimes against humanity, sexual violence being one of them. In this fragment of All Rise!, Tjitske Lingsma's new book, witness P-87 testifies anonymously about her brutal experiences with Bemba's warlords.

It is the prosecutor’s task to present today, through witness P-87, part of the evidence that, as a commander, Bemba bears responsibility for the international crimes committed by his MLC militia. It is the first time the ICC is prosecuting a person in this specific capacity. The witness will be under great pressure. P-87 will have to talk, in public, about very painful experiences. The lawyers defending Bemba will point at inconsistencies in her story. A trial being a test of strength between parties, which involves strategic and legal thinking to serve tactical goals and higher ideals of justice.

Any risk that the public could view her has to be ruled out

The game has started. The defence is asking whether one of the curtains can be pulled back a little because two lawyers who will do the cross- examination can’t see the witness. With a polite smile Steiner says: ‘I am informed by the court officer that it is not possible to get the curtain closer to the window because of the public gallery, so the curtain is in the very same position as always.’ She suggests the lawyers could swap seats? But the defence gives it one more try. ‘Last time it was dealt with, with a kind of a pin.’ Steiner doesn’t fall for that option. There is a good reason why the witness is shielded: she needs to be protected. Any risk that the public could view her has to be ruled out.

The defence doesn’t give up that easily and argues that their client Bemba can’t change positions, while he has ‘the right’ to see the witness. But the judge sticks to her point: ‘The standard proceeding is that of course the accused has a view, can see the witness, but through the monitors, and not directly, because the curtains have been always there in the very same position.’ And that’s it. ‘We shall follow your recommendation,’ maître Nkwebe Liriss, Bemba’s lead counsel, responds politely.

The judge asks the witness about the meaning of the oath. Steiner: ‘Did you understand that you must give answers to questions asked that are true and accurate to the best of your knowledge and belief?’ The witness: ‘Yes, I have properly understood that.’

Prosecutor Petra Kneuer, a woman with a serious frown that seldom disappears from her face, will be the first to question witness P-87. Carefully she takes the woman back to that dreadful day in 2002 that would upset her life completely. ‘Please,’ underlines Kneuer, ‘do not reveal your identity, or the location where you live, or for example names of family members or neighbours from which you could be identified.’ If she needs to share such sensitive information, the judges can order to go in private session and then the public won’t hear what she says. ‘Do you understand that, madam witness?’ The cubes on the monitor move as the witness answers: ‘Yes, I understand.’ Over the headphones the voices of the interpreters are heard translating the witness’ language Sango, into French and English for the judges, the court officials, the parties and the public.

'They said that the men had come, they were bad people, the Banyamulenge'

It is early in the morning, 30 October 2002, when the witness sees how young men in her neighbourhood in Bangui start running. ‘They said that the men had come, that they were bad people, they were the Banyamulenge,’ she tells the court. Many neighbours had not waited for the moment that Bemba’s militia, locally referred to as ‘Banyamulenge’, would arrive. They had fled in fear. Witness P-87 though, had decided with a young brother and a third person to stay in a house of her extended family. Despite the threat she sold coffee, as she was used to. Until events would take a terrible turn.

The coffee-seller sees how MLC soldiers are returning from the market with pillaged goods. When evening falls, her family home is targeted. Three of Bemba’s soldiers enter the house and steal valuable items such as the television, radio, chairs and mattresses. Robbed and frightened, witness P-87 and her family members are left with a looted house.

But while she is telling the judges about her ordeal, the woman makes a little mistake. By accident she gives away some names. Fortunately, the public gallery is almost empty. Just a few visitors heard the names. The proceedings in the courtroom are also web-streamed by the ICC, so everyone with a computer and Internet connection can follow the hearings. To be able to suppress and cut confidential information that is accidentally released by a witness, such as now happened, the video images are broadcast with a thirty-minute delay. Nevertheless, judge Steiner will keep on reminding the witness: be careful and avoid pronouncing names.

The pillaging is just the beginning. That same evening again three Banyamulenge enter the house. The leader of the group forces the coffee- seller to the veranda at the back of the house. He keeps his firearm in his right hand, puts down his torch and throws her on the ground. While the court’s interpreters translate her words, the woman tells without pausing: ‘He took off his belt and took off my underwear and he got out his penis. He penetrated me and he started to sleep with me and I had my hand on my head. When he finished he ejaculated, and he got up and he stood up before me and he closed his belt and he called one of his companions.’ She would be gang-raped by three MLC militiamen. ‘When I stood up the liquid was running out of my vagina.’

In a few sentences witness P-87 describes the terrible crime that must have devastated her. But she says nothing about the physical pain of the violent penetration, nothing about the emotional harm of the gang-rape, nothing about her trauma. ‘I was angry,’ she summarizes her feelings. When she enters the house, she sees that her attackers have stolen her family’s savings from the safe. ‘The money that I had from selling coffee, that money was taken as well.’ Unmoved, Bemba listens to the testimony of witness P-87 about the crimes allegedly committed by his men and for which he as commander is being held responsible. In an interview, much later, Steiner will explain that because of the nature of the crimes the ICC is dealing with, it is extra important to have female judges. ‘The African women who come and testify about rape and other humiliations are so ashamed and traumatised that they usually only look at me. Or they look down. But never at a man,’ Steiner explains. ‘They pretend there’s no one else in the courtroom. No prosecutor, no defence, no suspect.’

Heels are clicking on the parquet of the public gallery. A well-dressed woman, wearing a long skirt with matching jacket, waves at Bemba and takes her seat. A man sits down while giving a respectful nod to the accused. The supporters of Bemba have arrived. The Congolese are sitting as close as possible to the former politician/warlord/businessman, who, from behind the thick glass, exchanges knowing glances with them.

He has perished, murdered for a scooter

The family of P-87 still had one valuable object in the house. Bemba’s men would return to get it. When the witness suddenly hears a loud noise in the home, she tries to find out what is happening. Through a ‘little hole’ in the door that was made of planks, she peeps into the bedroom where her brother is trying to protect a motorbike from a MLC soldier who is about to steal the vehicle. She can’t see well. But she hears her brother saying: ‘No, no.’ And then it happened. ‘I heard three shots,' she says. Her brother moans three times. Then there is silence. He has perished, murdered for a scooter. When P-87 sees him covered in blood, she is ‘completely staggered, taken aback.’ In despair she runs to her neighbours. But it is too late, too dark and too dangerous to do anything. Only the next day the family is able to wash the body. That’s when she sees her murdered brother has three bullet marks on his chest. Only with great effort and being harassed by Banyamulenge, the family manages to bury the body. The motorbike is still in the house. The militia did not manage to take the moped. The lock proved to be of excellent quality.

A cross for each bullet hole

At the end of the second day of the testimony, the defence starts its cross examination. When Bemba was arrested, his bank accounts in Portugal were frozen. The ICC was convinced the suspect was able to pay his own lawyers, but because of delays, the court decided in 2009 to advance the bill for his defence. The Congolese leader has, just like other suspects, an international team of lawyers. Several come from the DRC, others from the United Kingdom and Australia. Much later Bemba paid the court back – the costs for his defence had increased to some 2 million euros. Defence counsel Nicholas Kaufman, an Israeli born in the United Kingdom, is doing part of the cross-examination of witness P-87. He wants to know how the ICC investigators had interviewed her. What language were Bemba’s men speaking? Why didn’t she see a doctor after the brutal rape? ‘In our country, in order to see a doctor, you have to have money. As all the money I had, had been stolen, I couldn’t go to see a doctor,’ the witness explains. Only years later, when she was in contact with the ICC investigators, she was medically examined.

On the public gallery people are laughing. ‘The witness tells lies,’ a Bemba supporter whispers. Another Congolese says: ‘She is a whore.’

All Rise! is for sale from Wednesday 6 September 2017. Order you copy on Amazon or on the author website.

Read 'The ICC is too valuable to fail', a Q&A with Tjitske Lingsma on her book.