Hague court sentences former Congo leader to 18 years
Verdict marks first time rape seen as weapon of war by International Criminal Court
Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the International Criminal Court in The Hague: the judge said Bemba had failed to exercise control over his “private army” when he unleashed them in the Central African Republic, allowing them to carry out “sadistic” rapes and murders and pillaging “of particular cruelty”. Photograph: Michael Kooren/Reuters
In a landmark judgment, former vice-president of the Congo Jean-Pierre Bemba has become the most senior politician to be sentenced by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – condemned to 18 years in jail on five charges of rape, murder and pillage.
The Bemba verdict is significant in legal terms because it marks the first time ICC judges have recognised rape as a weapon of war.
It’s also the first time the court has used the doctrine of “command responsibility” – finding Bemba directly responsible for the crimes of his subordinates.
The former militia leader was convicted in March of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) after he sent them into the neighbouring Central African Republic in October 2002 to end a coup against President Ange-Felix Patasse.
Wearing a blue suit and tie, Bemba (53) did not speak during the hearing at which Judge Sylvia Steiner sentenced him to five terms of between 16 and 18 years’ imprisonment, to run concurrently. The eight years spent in custody during his trial will be deducted from his term.
The judge said Bemba had failed to exercise control over his “private army” when he unleashed them in the Central African Republic, allowing them to carry out “sadistic” rapes and murders and pillaging “of particular cruelty” as they rampaged through the countryside.
Deflect attentionHe had armed his troops to the teeth and then paid them so little that they ran amok. “He made only token attempts to discipline them – in an attempt to deflect international attention from the crimes they were committing.”
However, as the three trial judges handed down their verdict, lawyers for Bemba said they would appeal against his conviction and argue for a mistrial.
The son of a businessman who became rich during years of association with former Congolese leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, Bemba was one of four vice-presidents of Congo named in 2002 as part of a peace agreement brokered by South Africa to end a civil war that began in 1998.
He was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and handed over to the ICC, where his trial began in 2010.
Despite his absence, Bemba’s MLC Party retains a significant following in parts of the country, and its secretary-general, Eve Bazaiba, rejected the court’s ruling: “We will continue and we will never cease denouncing the selective justice of the ICC.”
Sexual crimesHowever, as the hearing ended, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda described the verdict as “a very important day for international criminal justice, especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based crimes”.
Karen Naimer, director of the sexual violence in conflict zones programme at Physicians for Human Rights, agreed, saying the sentencing marked “a turning point”.
“The punishment meted out to Mr Bemba can’t turn back the clock, but it can bring a measure of closure to those victims who’ve waited patiently for more than a dozen years for this day to come.”
Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, warned that the significance of the Bemba ruling would continue to be felt far beyond that single case itself.
“Other commanders should now take note that they too can and will be held accountable for crimes such as rape, and other serious abuses, committed by troops under their control. As of today, their situation has changed radically.”