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Bemba Fronted For Congolese Presidency in November Polls

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese opposition leader on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), has been named by his party as its flag-bearer in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential poll due in late November.

At the time the elections will be conducted, Mr. Bemba, 48, is scheduled to still be on trial at the Hague-based court. He is likely to open his defense in the war crimes trial early next year, and the earliest date judges could announce a verdict is still more than a year away.

Over the weekend, the Movement for Liberation of Congo (MLC), the party that Mr. Bemba founded, announced that he would be their candidate in the elections, where incumbent Joseph Kabila will stand for re-election. In a statement, the MLC said that it had decided to front Mr. Bemba, who would be taking a second shot at the presidency via the ballot.

In 2006, Mr. Bemba and Mr. Kabila contested in a run-off for the presidency, having emerged the top favorites in the first round of polling. Ultimately, Mr. Kabila – who had ascended to the presidency in January 2001 following the murder of his father, Laurent Kabila – emerged victorious. Mr. Bemba went on to lead the opposition in parliament, but following deadly clashes between soldiers loyal to the two protagonists, he fled to Belgium during 2007.

In May of 2008, Belgian authorities arrested Mr. Bemba and handed him over to the ICC, where he is now on trial for war crimes. Prosecutors of the ICC claim that Mr. Bemba looked on as the estimated 1,500 MLC troops he commanded pillaged, murdered, and raped civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. At the time, the MLC was a rebel group attempting to topple Mr. Kabila’s government.

Thomas Luhaka, Secretary-General of the MLC, told the news agency Bloomberg on July 22 that “Bemba announced in a letter to the party conference today that he would propose himself as a candidate. We are in agreement, but we need to work out the practical problems.”

Media reports quoted a letter from Mr. Bemba, which was read out at his party’s conference, in which he stated that his candidacy for the presidential election “will be, as long as you are in agreement, one that can deliver certain victory.” According to the AFP news agency, Mr. Bemba added, “I can assure you that my desire to serve the Congo remains intact. Rest assured, I will not give up. I do not fear the justice of man, only God’s justice.”

At end of the party conference, delegates confirmed the candidature of Mr. Bemba, who has been held at the ICC detention center since July 3, 2008. He faces two crimes against humanity (rape and murder) and three war crimes (rape, murder, and pillaging).

According to the prosecutors, Mr. Bemba was the president and commander-in-chief of the MLC. They claim he “effectively acted as a military commander and had effective authority and control over the MLC troops” who committed crimes in the CAR. Further, prosecutors say Mr. Bemba knew that his troops were committing crimes but “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission.”

Reuters reported that while it was unclear whether Bemba would be free to run given his ongoing trial, local analysts considered his endorsement by the MLC as a likely bid by the party to strengthen its hand in talks over a possible anti-Kabila alliance with other parties. “The MLC is trying to raise its profile ahead of the election…It wants to be portrayed as a force which can allow the opposition to win,” Philippe Biyoya, politics professor at the University of Kinshasa, told the agency.

Hearings in Mr. Bemba’s ICC trial are scheduled to recommence next month.