An expert in the use of rape as a tool of war today said Congolese soldiers raped Central African women as “punishment” for supporting rebels who attempted to overthrow then president Ange-Félix Patassé. The women were able to identify the nationality of their attackers because the soldiers spoke a language the women could identify as Congolese.
On the last day of his testimony, Dr. André Tabo, who is testifying for the prosecution as an expert witness in the trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, also was put to task by the defense to explain the high rates of HIV infection among the rape survivors. In his testimony yesterday, the expert stated that 81 of the 512 survivors he worked with were found to be HIV-positive – although it had been established that the majority of them had the virus prior to the rape.
Central to the defense's questioning was the nationality of the attackers. According to the witness, the survivors stated that the attackers were members of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the militia headed by Mr. Bemba.
“How was it then that the victims came to understand their attackers, that they were being raped to punish them for collaborating with the enemy?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.
Dr. Tabo responded that because the CAR neighbored the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), “certain languages from the DRC are understood by the people of the CAR and vice versa.”
He added that several rape survivors told him that after soldiers entered their houses, they demanded to know where the rebels were hiding and said they would punish the women if they did not disclose the whereabouts of the insurgents. He said the soldiers then raped the women as punishment for supporting the rebels.
The expert stated that the majority of the survivors said such words were uttered to them before they were raped. According to him, rape was used during the armed conflict in the CAR as a weapon of war. He added that soldiers who were under pressure of fighting, and who were out of control, often used sex to unwind. Dr. Tabo also said that the soldiers preferred “young and attractive women,” which explained why women below 30 years were up to four times more likely to be raped than those over 30.
Asked by the defense counsel how he determined that ten of the 512 survivors he sampled became infected with HIV during the rape, the witness said this information was gathered by a separate team formed by the CAR government and funded by the UN. Mr. Haynes sought to cast doubt on the credibility of the team that gathered this data, emphasizing that it was not the UN but the social affairs ministry of the CAR that carried gathered the data. Besides, he questioned the conclusions reached by Dr. Tabo. How, for instance, could he say only four women got pregnant following rapes of more than 500 women, yet many of them were raped several times and sometimes by two or more men?
The expert witness replied that there were probably cases of unwanted pregnancies that were not stated. “The actual figure here is below. Many victims were not able to come forward,” explained Dr. Tabo, a Central African psychiatrist and medical professor, who treated and assessed numerous women raped during that conflict.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charge that members of the MLC used rape of both men and women as a weapon of war while they fought alongside former president Patassé's forces. Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly having failed to stop or to punish his soldiers who raped, murdered, and looted. He has denied the charges.
In what appeared to be an apparent attempt to dismiss prosecution allegations that Congolese soldiers infected Central African women with HIV, Mr. Haynes tendered as evidence a CAR government report, which stated that the HIV prevalence rate in that country was around 15 percent in 2002. He also tendered a report by the UN Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) that he claimed pegged the prevalence rate in the DRC at the time at no more than 1.5 percent.
Asked by Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a legal representative of victims participating in the trial, to explain how he established that numerous married women were raped during the conflict, Dr. Tabo explained that survivors filled in questionnaires in which they stated their marital status at the time of the attacks.
Yesterday, the expert stated that amongst the 512 survivors sampled in the doctor's report, 42 percent of them were raped in front of their family members. Dr. Tabo stated that perpetrating sexual violence in the presence of others is connected to the “punishment” motivation, particularly if that family member is a husband.” Raping a woman before and in front of a member of her family meant punishing her and humiliating that member of the family,” he stated.
Dr. Tabo completed his testimony today. Hearings will resume on May 3, 2011 as court begins the spring judicial recess next week.