Reuters) – Former Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba went on trial at the International Criminal Court for obstructing justice on Tuesday after allegedly trying to corrupt witnesses in his war crimes trial still underway.
rosecutors say Bemba, whose trial for crimes against humanity opened at the Hague court in 2010, hoped flawed testimony would lead to his acquittal in that case. All the suspects in the second trial deny any wrongdoing.
“This is a case about shielding the integrity of the court’s proceedings,” Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening remarks.
Some of the court’s highest-profile cases have collapsed due to witness tampering. Last year, prosecutors abandoned their case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, accused of fomenting pre-election violence, because of what they said was large-scale intimidation and bribing of witnesses.
“Mr. Bemba directed a plan to see his acquittal through corrupted means,” Bensouda told the court, adding that witness testimony, phone and money transfer records and logs from the court’s jail would prove her case.
The suspects deny the charges, saying that any payments made were intended to cover witnesses’ expenses and not to influence their testimony.
The defence did not have a chance to reply at Tuesday’s hearing. Seated in court, Bemba followed the session intensely, nodding along and tapping his finger as Bensouda spoke.
Bemba is accused of conspiring with ex-trial lawyer Aime Kilolo Musamba, Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, another member of his legal team, Fidele Babala Wandu, a politician and close associate, and witness Narcisse Arido to coach witnesses or offer pay for favourable testimony.
In his crimes against humanity trial, he is accused of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in 2002, when soldiers for his Movement for the Liberation of Congo militia intervened in neighbouring Central African Republic.
In court, prosecutors played a tape of lawyer Kilolo apparently instructing a witness to avoid saying Bemba had direct control over the militia.
In written filings, prosecutors cited witness accounts in which Kilolo discussed giving cash sums of around 50 euros to witnesses and hiding the matter from Bemba’s other lawyers.
“This isn’t corruption,” Kilolo told one witness, according to prosecutors. “Just a present from Mr. Bemba because you agreed to testify in his favour.”
The five defendants could face sentences of up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine if convicted.