Witness-tampering charges could derail Bemba war crimes trial
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A lawyer for former Congo vice-president and war crimes suspect Jean-Pierre Bemba went on trial himself on Wednesday on charges of colluding with his client and three others to mislead the court with forged documents and bribed witnesses.
The case could slow or derail the trial of the millionaire Bemba, who is accused of having allowed troops loyal to him to rape and pillage in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 when they were sent there to put down coup attempts.
Aimé Kilolo Musamba, a Belgian citizen, was arrested in Belgium on an ICC arrest warrant on Saturday, along with three other people alleged to have conspired with Bemba to bribe witnesses and knowingly provide false evidence to the court.
They included Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, another member of Bemba's legal team, who was arrested in the Netherlands, Congolese politician Fidele Babala Wandu, and Narcisse Arido, a defense witness.
Kilolo, an experienced lawyer who has defended suspects before international courts in the past, told the court he was surprised the prosecution had chosen to arrest him.
"I was surprised to be deprived of my freedom, given that I spend most of my time in The Hague within the very premises of the court where I have my offices," he told the court when he made his initial appearance as a suspect on Wednesday.
He said he would have agreed voluntarily to be interviewed by the prosecution if asked. But prosecution lawyers said they wanted to prevent the five suspects from colluding with each other before investigators had a chance to interview them.
Bemba, who was also in court, said he was "very surprised" by the charges.
The decision to bring charges against two important members of Bemba's defense team as his five-year trial nears its final phase has worried some legal scholars, who say that the move risked crippling Bemba's defense.
"The whole case against Bemba is now in jeopardy," said a lawyer who regularly works at the court, adding that it would be difficult for a new lawyer to step in at such a late stage in the trial.
Mangende and Arido are still contesting the ICC's arrest warrants and were not in court on Wednesday. Kilolo's lawyer said he would apply to have his client released from detention.
A further delay to a trial that has been under way for so long could damage the credibility of a court that has produced only one conviction in a decade and struggled to assert its authority in countries where it has jurisdiction.
Libya has resisted moves to hand over Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country's late former leader, who is accused by the ICC of orchestrating bloody reprisals during the protests that brought down Muammar Gaddafi.
Many African leaders have urged Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to boycott the court, where he faces crimes against humanity charges relating to violence after a 2007 election.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt)