ICC Jails Congolese Former Vice President for War Crimes

  • Bemba sentenced for murders, rape committed by his troops
  • Crimes took place in Central African Republic in 2002-2003

The International Criminal Court jailed a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo for 18 years for murders and rapes committed by fighters he commanded in neighboring Central African Republic more than a decade ago.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, who served as vice president in a transitional government from 2003 to 2006, is the highest-ranking politician to be convicted by The Hague-based court and the first official to be held directly responsible for war crimes committed by his subordinates. Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner announced the sentencing Tuesday in a ruling read to the court.

The son of a wealthy businessmen with close ties to former Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Bemba founded and led the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo during Congo’s second civil war between 1998 and 2003. In 2002, he sent MLC soldiers into Central African Republic to help President Ange-Felix Patasse put down a rebellion. While there, his troops committed the rapes, murders and pillaging in 2002 and 2003 for which he was later held accountable.

Bemba was convicted as “a person effectively acting as a military commander” who knew MLC forces “were committing or about to commit” war crimes, the chamber said in a summary of its decision published on the ICC’s website.

Facilitating Crimes

“The reasonable and necessary measures at his disposal, which he did not take, would have deterred the commission of crimes, and generally diminished, if not eliminated, the climate of acquiescence surrounding and facilitating the crimes,” it said.

Bemba served as one of four vice presidents in the transitional government at the end of the war and remains president of the MLC, which became one of Congo’s biggest opposition parties. He was runner-up to President Joseph Kabila in the second round of 2006’s presidential elections, winning 42 percent of the vote. Hundreds of people died when forces loyal to the two men clashed in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, in the aftermath.

Bemba’s supporters have long hoped the 53-year-old would be able to return to Congo to contest presidential elections currently scheduled for November. The country is Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt, which is used to make rechargeable batteries. Tuesday’s sentencing makes any return to Congolese politics increasingly unlikely.

While the eight years that Bemba has spent in detention since his arrest in May 2008 will be deducted from his sentence, he could face five more years for allegedly corrupting witnesses in the trial process. Four co-defendants in the witness-tampering case, which started in September, were granted interim release last year. Bemba was detained pending the outcome of the war-crimes trial.

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