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Bemba travels to Belgium for stepmother’s funeral

Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was this week permitted by judges to travel from the detention center in The Hague to Belgium to attend the requiem mass of his stepmother.

The former Congolese Vice President returned to The Hague the same day and has from Tuesday been present in court where the fourth witness in his war crimes trial is giving testimony.

Mr. Bemba, whose family lives in Belgium, paid all costs for his travel and will also reimburse the Belgian and Dutch governments for all costs they incurred in handling his travel.

In International Criminal Court (ICC) detention since July 2008, this is the second time judges have permitted Mr. Bemba to travel to Belgium. The first time was in July 2009, when he went for his father’s funeral.

According to a decision made public on January 12, 2011, judges stated that they had allowed Mr. Bemba to travel to the requiem mass of Ms. Efika Lola Saida Josette in Belgium after the accused had sufficiently demonstrated a family link between himself and the deceased.

“The chamber considers that the death of Mr. Bemba’s stepmother is an exceptional circumstance that justifies the chamber exercising its inherent power for humanitarian reasons,” said Judges Sylvia Steiner, Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki.

In his application, Mr. Bemba said the deceased had raised him from the age of 12 years following the death of his biological mother. However, while he had requested for provisional release from January 6 to 10, 2011, judges only approved his travel for the morning of January 10 with a return to The Hague on the same day.

Some Belgian media have since carried pictures of Mr. Bemba and his family at the mass in Waterloo, Belgium. Mr. Bemba is on trial over the alleged widespread rape, murder, and plunder committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo troops in neighboring Central African Republic during 2002 and 2003.

Under the terms of his short term release from detention, Mr. Bemba and all members of his defense team were not permitted to contact the public or speak to the press to reveal any information relating to his presence on Belgian territory, before and during his stay in the country.

Besides, judges directed that Mr. Bemba would not be authorized to communicate with anyone, “except for the members of his close family or persons assigned for his protection.” The judges ordered that Mr. Bemba would only be allowed to visit his wife’s residence and, if his stepmother’s remains were not there, the location where they were kept, as well as to attend the requiem mass at Saint-Paul de Waterloo Church.

Prosecutors opposed Mr. Bemba’s application to travel to Belgium, arguing that there was a high risk that he could abscond. They also contended that since the trial had started, Mr. Bemba could directly identify prosecution witnesses. Judges noted in their ruling that the legal representatives for victims did not file any response to the defense request.

Mr. Bemba has recently stepped up attempts to be freed from ICC detention, at least during periods of judicial recess at the court. He has also proposed a more lenient detention regime consisting of his being placed in a safe house in The Netherlands where he would stay with his wife, five children, and paternal grandmother exclusively at his expense. The judges have rejected these requests.