ICC finds ex-Congolese army leader guilty of war crimes

International Criminal Court (ICC) convicts ex-Congolese army leader Jean Pierre Bemba on charges of leading killings and rapes in Central African Republic

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba on trial at the International Criminal Court for violent rapes and killings by his private army in neighbouring Central African Republic over a decade ago.

Democratic Republic of Congo's Jean-Pierre Bemba became the highest-ranking politician convicted by the Internation Criminal Court on Monday, when it judged him responsible for systematic rapes and killing by his private army in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) over a decade ago.

The International Criminal Court's presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner, said Bemba - who served as vice president from 2003 to 2006 - failed to discipline or restrain his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers as they rampaged through the CAR in 2002 and 2003.

It is the first case after the ICC has recognised sexual violence as a weapon of war and in which someone has stood trial for atrocities carried out by troops led by a separate military commander, even if they did not directly order those crimes.

United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein welcomed the verdict as a step towards eradicating "the horrendous sexual crimes which have blighted the lives of so many women."

Steiner ordered that Bemba be held in custody pending sentencing at a later date.

But Bemba's defence lawyer Peter Haynes told Agence France Presse his client was "disappointed" by the judgement. The 53-year-old, who has been behind bars since he was captured in 2008, is expected to appeal the conviction, which could take several years.

The Congolese Liberation Movement, loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, allegedly went on a rampage of killings, rapes and pillage in the villages of the Central African Republic in 2002 

ICC judges said Bemba had punished some low-ranking soldiers for crimes and ordered inquiries into allegations of misconduct, which included raping girls aged as young as 10.

But those attempts were weak, as Bemba, the military commander of the MLC "knew that the troops were committing crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission," ICC prosecutors emphasised.

Nearly 1,500 of Bemba's troops allegedly carried out systematic killings, rapes and pillaging in CAR over six months.

Bemba's supporters reacted indignantly to the verdict.

"How could he do enough? He was just one person!" said Eve Bazaiba, secretary-general of the MLC outside the courtroom.

In Congo's capital of Kinshasa, hundreds were packed into the party's provincial headquarters. "We are very disappointed [at the news]. We don't even have the strength to return home," said one supporter, 23-year-old Tresor Tshinyama.

Bemba could be jailed for up to 30 years or even given a life sentence, but Bemba’s defence lawyers have insisted that he did not command troops in the CAR.

The trial chamber also declared that more than 5,000 victims have a right to participate in the hearings - the highest number in any of the cases to come before the ICC so far.

The trial, opened in November 2010, has "undeniably contributed to raising awareness of a destructive effect that the usage of sexual violence as a systematic weapon of war has on women and men," said FIDH, a worldwide organisation of human rights groups.

Democratic Republic of Congo vice president and presidential candidate Jean Pierre Bemba addresses a campaign rally in 2006 in Kinshasa.

Jean Pierre Bemba's Journey

The Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) led by Jean Prierre Bemba - who was a rebel leader in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo - was sent to CAR in order to put down an attempted army coup against former president Ange-Felix Patasse by his arch-foe Francois Bozize.

Bozize successfully ousted Patasse and was in power in the CAR for a decade until he was forced out in 2013.

Bemba, once a wealthy businessman, became one of four vice presidents in Joseph Kabila’s transitional government in the Democratic Republic of Congo until the 2006 election.

After he lost in presidential election against Kabila in 2006, he fled into what he called "forced exile" in Europe after his troops were routed by government forces and was arrested in Brussels in 2008 and handed over to the ICC.

TRTWorld and agencies