Trial judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) have rejected an application by former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to be freed from detention at the court based in The Hague.
In a ruling delivered on December 17, the judges determined that there was a high likelihood that Mr. Bemba would flee if he were released. Mr. Bemba’s war trial at the ICC commenced on November 22, 2010, but eight days later he asked judges to either release him immediately, or allow him to be confined to a safe house in The Netherlands where he would stay with his wife and children.
In their application, defense lawyers suggested that if the release was not ordered immediately, it should at least be restricted to all periods of judicial recess at the court. They said the West African country of Senegal had informally indicated its readiness to host Mr. Bemba on its territory during recess periods and to secure his appearance at trial, and that South Africa had showed similar interest. Besides his home country – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – defense attorneys proposed that Mr. Bemba could as well be released to Belgium, Portugal, or The Netherlands.
However, judges Sylvia Steiner, Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki rejected all the proposals the defense put forward. They stated that they were not satisfied that the changed circumstances regarding Mr. Bemba’s case required a modification of their previous ruling on his detention. The judges added that they were not persuaded that the guarantees given by the defense would ensure Mr. Bemba’s appearance at trial.
“The reasons underpinning the previous chamber’s ruling on detention as submitted by the prosecution, namely the gravity of charges confirmed against the accused, the related potential substantial sentence in case of conviction, the financial and material support from which the accused still benefits are, in the chamber’s view, still in existence and increase the risk of non-appearance at trial in particular now that the trial has started,” ruled the judges.
They considered that these reasons were not outweighed by the defense arguments in support of release, as the chamber did not consider these arguments as constituting changed circumstances such as would warrant either Mr. Bemba’s release or a modification of his detention regime.
The judges found that prior to trial Mr. Bemba had not been detained for an unreasonable period. The accused was in detention for 30 months before his trial opened. On the issue of countries wishing to host Mr. Bemba if he were released, the judges said the defense only alluded to “contacts” with authorities of Senegal and South Africa “and simply mentioned a proposed meeting which did not take place.”
Prosecutors at the ICC charge that Mr. Bemba is criminally responsible for two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging) allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003.
Mr. Bemba has acknowledged that troops from his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) military group indeed went to neighboring CAR during this period to help the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, stave off a coup attempt. However, he has denied that he committed the crimes he is accused of, arguing that once the troops crossed from Congolese territory they were under the command of Mr. Patassé.
Three witnesses have so far testified in the trial. Hearings resume on January 11, 2011.