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Will the Big Fish be Cooked? Congolese Reactions to the Start of the Bemba Trial

Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese activists.  The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the International Refugee Rights Initiative or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

As the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba started in The Hague on November 22, Kinshasa was abuzz with the news. Newspapers carried the story as front page news. “Bemba Giving Up His Ex” cried the full page cover of Le Soft, while La Prosperite read “Bemba Faces the Judges.” Congolese television broadcast the opening statements in their entirety and radio outlets offered an overview. All in all, there was a serious mobilization of news outlets to cover the trial. In the words of one Congolese activist, “The ICC has just had its first real public audience in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Bemba is, of course, not the first Congolese to come before the ICC. The trial against Thomas Lubanga is wrapping up and the proceedings against Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui are well underway. It is clear, however, that the Bemba trial is getting far greater national attention even though it is touching crimes committed in the Central African Republic, not Congo. Unlike Lubanga, Katanga, and Chui, Bemba is universally considered a “big fish.” In 2006, he narrowly lost the presidential elections to current president Joseph Kabila. He remains a powerful opposition force, and is particularly strong in the western part of the country, which includes the capital Kinshasa. From Kinshasa, the ongoing violence in the eastern part of the country (the focus of the trials to date) may seem a million miles away, but this new trial hits at the heart of politics in the capital.

The political class was not slow to respond. The Union for the Congolese Nation (Union pour la Nation Congolaise), which supported Bemba’s second round presidential bid in 2006, called on the court to “take into account the evolution of circumstances that motivated the sad decision on the detention of Jean Pierre Bemba, a major actor in the democratic process underway in the country.” They lamented that “the absence of Jean Pierre Bemba from the Congolese political scene has, it can hardly be doubted, weakened the opposition, and with it the democratic game in the DRC.”

Indeed, Bemba’s arrest on May 24, 2008 in Brussels on an ICC arrest warrant took in a context in which it seemed that the then-Senator Bemba was poised to take up the post of coordinator of the opposition and to be presented as the opposition candidate for president in 2011.

Bemba’s removal is seen by many in the DRC as convenient for Kabila and his cronies. According to Emmanuel Malonga, a Kinshasa resident quoted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, “The Congolese authorities have used the ICC to get rid of Bemba ahead of the 2011 elections. But the MLC [Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo] has a great vision for this country, and any candidate that stands against Kabila will be voted in.”

Mr. Malonga’s faith in the opposition without Bemba at its helm is not supported by many political analysts who wonder whether the opposition is ready to field another candidate. They argue that an alternative would not have the same power to challenge Kabila in 2011 and point in particular to leadership struggles already underway within the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo, Bemba’s political party.

But, of course, there are already those waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of Bemba’s absence to promote their own opposition credentials. For example, there are rumors that from his prison cell Bemba will reach out to form an alliance with Vital Kamerhe, who has served as speaker of the national assembly and has a strong following in the east. And it is unlikely to be a coincidence that Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the veteran politician and leader of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UPDS), chose to give an interview to France 24 talking about his intention to return to DRC in December to begin his presidential campaign. Having boycotted the 2006 elections, he claimed that that although the situation had not improved in terms of allowing for free and fair elections, the political situation was such that he was compelled to intervene so as not to be accused of failing to assist a “people in danger”. Coming from the same region as Bemba, Tshisekedi may hope to siphon support from the Bemba camp, but at his advanced age there are doubts about his ability to respond to the demands of campaigning. It is also noted that after three years in exile he no longer has the same political weight that he once had.

Given the high stakes political implications of the trial, its conduct is being put under the microscope. In the words of a commentator from the Congolese paper Le Potentiel, Bemba is a big fish and so Ocampo “needs a big net in order to keep him from slipping through his fingers.” Unfortunately, the trial is already coming under criticism. First, many in the DRC and in the Central African Republic are asking why Bemba is standing trial for crimes committed in the CAR when the man who invited him in and on whose behalf his troops fought remains in a comfortable exile. Others want to know why Bemba is on trial only for those crimes committed in CAR when there is evidence of his involvement in crimes in the DRC as well. Le Phare asks “Will the atrocities committed in Congo remain unpunished?” Third, there are concerns about the ethnic politics which may lie behind his hand over to the Court. One activist pointed to Bemba’s presence in The Hague in contrast to the freedom of another suspect, Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi from eastern Congo, commenting in relation to the former that “because he is a Bantu, it was easy to hand him over.” Others blame Bemba’s misfortune on his political weaknesses. “Would Bemba have been tried had he been elected President?” asks Le Potentiel.

In this complex and highly charged environment, all eyes are on the prosecutor. Given the immense political implications of the trial, it is even more important that the process be seen as fair and impartial.