Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on Tuesday for heading a 2002-03 campaign of rape and murder in neighbouring Central African Republic.
"The chamber sentences Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to a total of 18 years of imprisonment," said judge Sylvia Steiner, ruling that the former militia leader had failed to exercise control over his private army sent to CAR in late October 2002 where they carried out "sadistic" rapes, murders and pillaging of "particular cruelty."
The atrocities were carried out by Bemba's private army, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), when he sent them into neighbouring CAR in late October 2002. The army was sent to put down a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
The 1,500 soldiers unleashed a five-month campaign of terror aimed at squashing any resistance to Patasse's rule.
Prosecutors had called for a sentence of at least 25 years at the end of Bemba's lengthy trial which opened in November 2010.
Filing for appeal
The case however is likely to drag on for a few more years, as his defence team has already filed notice that it intends to appeal the conviction. The team argued for Bemba's immediate release as he has already been in jail since his arrest in 2008.
Reading out the sentence at the ICC, Steiner said Bemba had done "more than tolerate the crimes as a commander".
She said, "Mr Bemba's failure to take action was deliberately aimed at encouraging the attacks directed against the civilian population."
Bemba is the highest-level official to be sentenced by the ICC, after being convicted in March on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president is the first person whom the global war crimes court has held responsible for his subordinates' crimes.
In swift reaction, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it welcomed the sentence saying it "offers a measure of justice for victims of sexual violence" and serves as a warning to other commanders that they too can be held accountable for rapes and other abuses committed by troops under their control.
It is only the third sentence to be handed down by the ICC since it began work to prosecute the world's worst crimes in 2002.
The son of a businessman who became rich during years of close association with former Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko, Bemba entered the government under current President Joseph Kabila in 2003 as part of a power-sharing deal that ended years of civil war. He was arrested in Brussels in 2008.
Originally a rebel force in Congo's northwest, the MLC is now a political party and Bemba retains a significant following in the West. He can appeal his conviction and sentence.