Defiant Jean-Pierre Bemba gets his day in court

By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Bemba pleaded not guilty to the charges against him

There was a theatrical air to the opening of the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in The Hague.

A blind pulled down between the courtroom and the public gallery was raised at the start of the proceedings, revealing a packed courtroom.

As the lawyers and their assistants leafed through their papers and readied themselves, Mr Bemba sat behind his defence counsel, with his arms folded and a look of defiance flickering across his face.

The presiding judge allowed some photographers into the court for just three minutes. It added to a rather hectic atmosphere as the public gallery quickly filled up.

Unlike the special court for Sierra Leone where the former Liberian president Charles Taylor is on trial, members of the public at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are on the same level as the court, and have an unobstructed view of the trial chamber.

With a nod of his head, Mr Bemba acknowledged the judge's welcome to him, and through his lawyer, he proceeded to plead not guilty to all five charges against him.

Harrowing allegations

The chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, outlined the case against Mr Bemba. From the outset of this trial, the prosecutors are trying to show that Mr Bemba's "command responsibility" was paramount and that he used rape as a weapon of war.

The catalogue of allegations of murder, rape and pillaging said to have been carried out by Mr Bemba's forces in 2002-2003 was harrowing in the extreme.

The role of the victims is likely to be significant. More than 750 victims have been authorised to participate in the legal process and some 600 more have applied to do so. They will be able to offer their view to legal representatives, although they will not question witnesses.

An interesting feature of the pre-trial news conference in The Hague was a video link with Kinshasa and Bangui, the capital cities of the DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR) respectively.

The sometimes shaky technology meant the connection was not perfect, but it was generally sufficient for local journalists to put a range of questions to the ICC's chief prosecutor and the defence counsel.

'Hour of truth'

A reporter in Kinshasa wanted to know why Jean-Pierre Bemba was on trial, and why the former leader of the CAR, Ange-Felix Patasse, was a free man.

Mr Moreno-Ocampo replied that Mr Bemba had been the man "most responsible" for the crimes committed. The then CAR leader had deployed Mr Bemba's forces, but that was not a crime, he said. "We had to prosecute those who committed crimes... and it was Bemba's troops who had raped and pillaged."

As the afternoon wore on, there were even reminders of the Central African Republic's troubled past under Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. A representative of the victims said "the hour of truth had now arrived". There was "a new hope" of finding out what had happened in the CAR in 2002 and 2003.

After two-and-a-half years in custody, Mr Bemba at last has his day in court. This was only the first of many.

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