Congolese ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has been jailed for 18 years following a landmark conviction at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and sexual violence.

Bemba, a former vice-president of DR Congo, was convicted in March of crimes committed in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003.

He was accused of failing to stop his rebels from killing and raping people.

Bemba’s lawyers have already said they will appeal against his conviction.

Judges announced sentences of between 16 and 18 years for five counts of rape, murder and pillaging, with the jail terms running concurrently. The eight years Bemba has already spent in custody will be deducted from his term.

His conviction was the first time the ICC had focused on rape as a weapon of war, and the first time a suspect had been convicted for crimes committed by others under his command.

Passing sentence at the ICC in The Hague, Judge Sylvia Steiner said Bemba had failed to exercise control over his private militia sent into CAR, where they carried out “sadistic” rapes, murders and pillaging of “particular cruelty”.

The former militia commander is the third person convicted by the controversial “court of last resort” set up to try the world’s worst crimes in 2002.

The court told Bemba that the years he had spent behind bars since his arrest in Belgium in 2008 and subsequent detention would be deducted from his sentence.

In their ruling, three trial judges found that Bemba was responsible as the military commander of the MLC for a reign of terror by about 1,500 of his troops, including wide-scale rapes and murders, as they sought to quash a coup against the then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé.

Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said it was an important day for international criminal justice
Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said it was an important day for international criminal justice

Bemba, who in 2002 became one of four vice-presidents of Congo under a peace agreement brokered by South Africa which ended the bloody civil war, was sentenced to two 18-year terms and two 16-year terms, to run concurrently.

The judges said Bemba could at any point have ended the MLC’s five-month rampage, but chose not to.

The ICC was set up in 2002 to be an independent international “court of last resort” for grave crimes that could not be dealt with locally.

The conviction and sentencing of Bemba will boost the court, which has a budget of more than $150m (£102m) annually.

Campaigners said the case was also historic because a record number of civilian victims – more than 5,200 – participated in the proceedings and may now be eligible for reparations.

However, analysts say the judgment will also highlight the failure of the court to punish anyone for the widespread and systematic human rights abuses committed by militia in Congo itself, particularly during the years of the civil war from 1998 to 2002.

“For the Congolese, it would feel like a missed opportunity for what happened there. One shouldn’t minimise what happened in the CAR but there is a sense of a missed opportunity,” said Hans Hoebeke, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya.

The institution has repeatedly been criticised for unfairly targeting Africa and African leaders. Critics point out that nine of the 10 “situations” currently being examined by the court relate to Africa.

Current high-profile ICC trials include that of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, who denies charges that he orchestrated “unspeakable violence” in an attempt to hold on to power after losing an election in 2010, and that of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who is accused of razing medieval shrines, tombs and a 15th-century mosque that formed part of the Unesco world heritage site in Timbuktu, Mali, when the city was seized by Islamic militants in 2012.

In 2015, the ICC was forced to drop charges against Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, who had been accused of stoking ethnic violence after Kenya’s 2007 presidential election.

Prosecutors blamed their failure to put Kenyatta on trial on political interference and massive interference with witnesses, especially after Kenyatta was elected president in 2013. In April, charges against Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, were also dropped for similar reasons.

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, rejected accusations that the ICC was institutionally biased against Africans.

“I remind the Africans that it’s wrong for them to say that only African leaders are put into the dock,” Annan, who is from Ghana, said.

Several African governments have threatened to quit the ICC.

In February, the African Union backed a proposal by Kenyatta “to develop a road map for the withdrawal of African nations” from the court.

Last month, Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, called the ICC useless during a swearing-in ceremony for his fifth term in power, prompting a walk-out by western diplomats.

Museveni has been named as a supporter of Bemba during Congo’s most recent civil war

Bensouda has said charges of bias are misplaced. “If certain people are looking to shield the alleged perpetrators of those crimes, of course they will say we are targeting [African states]. But … the victims deserve justice, the victims are Africans, and in the absence of the ICC nobody else is giving them justice.”

The ICC is also conducting “preliminary examinations” into eight further conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Colombia and Burundi, a spokesperson said.

The court’s decision has significant implications for politics in Bemba’s homeland.

Bemba finished second to the current president Joseph Kabila in the second round of the 2006 presidential elections with 42% of the vote. In 2007, hundreds of people died in the streets of Kinshasa when forces loyal to the two men clashed in the capital.

Bemba fled first to the South African embassy, then to Portugal and finally to Belgium, where he was arrested.

However, the wealthy businessman remains president of the opposition MLC and has retained a significant power base in the north and east of Congo, along with a presence in Kinshasa.

“His party still exists but is seriously diminished … The opposition at this point does not have a strong figurehead and there is no evidence of any significant mobilisation,” said Hoebeke.

Kabila’s second term expires in December, but polls are unlikely to be held as scheduled. Supporters of the president say more time is needed to organise logistics and prepare electoral rolls. Kabila’s critics accuse him of mounting a bid to remain in power indefinitely.

One leading opposition figure – Moise Katumbi – left Congo last month for medical treatment after being charged with mounting a coup attempt. Katumbi remains overseas, rallying opposition figures.

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