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Can Bemba Run For Congolese President From His ICC Jail?

While the International Criminal Court (ICC) strives to get into its custody the two indicted heads of state, one of the inmates in the court’s detention center is bent on becoming his country’s president. How he plans to manage his presidential campaign from his cell in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, remains to be seen. Equally uncertain is whether Congolese electoral officials would permit him to stand in the November poll.

For now, Jean-Pierre Bemba is set on being the presidential candidate for the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). At the weekend, the political party gave him its nod, after he wrote to its top officials beseeching them to name him the flag-bearer. However, there are seeming insurmountable odds stacked against his candidature.

Mr. Bemba, 48, is on trial at the ICC over the rape, murder, and pillaging carried out by the militia arm of the MLC against civilians of the Central African Republic during 2002 and 2003. His trial commenced last November.

Mr. Bemba’s defense lawyer, Nick Kaufman, said on July 26 that the law under which the Congolese opposition leader is being tried does not bar him from standing for elections. “There is nothing in the Rome Statute which prevents Mr. Bemba from being the flag bearer for his party in the November 2011 presidential elections. This is even more so the case since – until determined otherwise – Mr. Bemba is an innocent man,” stated the Mr. Kaufman.

He added, “Mr. Bemba has devoted his life to the people of the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and will continue to do so wherever he may be.”

For their part, ICC officials stated that the unfolding scenario was without precedent in the court’s history, so they did not know what to make of it.

What Mr. Kaufman would not answer was whether Mr. Bemba hoped to get out of ICC custody one of these days. The elections are four months away, while Mr. Bemba’s war crimes trial at the Hague-based court could go on for at least another year. How would he manage his campaigns? And if he were elected, would Mr. Bemba run the country from his Dutch cell as he awaits the verdict of the judges? Moreover, would his not-too-charitable bitter rival, incumbent president Joseph Kabila, allow his nemesis the luxury of running for president from a far-flung European jail?

Some observers believe Mr. Bemba’s candidature will yet sail into troubled legal waters. Richard Bondo Tshimbombo Bontshi, a Kinshasa lawyer who formerly headed the organization Advocates Without Borders in Congo, explained that the country’s laws allowed someone on trial to stand for election. “But someone out of the country can’t stand,” he added in an interview with the International Justice Monitor.

According to him, Mr. Bemba’s candidature is “strategic” and intended to dissuade any pretenders off the MLC top seat. François Mwamba, the party’s general secretary who openly nursed presidential ambitions, was edged out of the position three months ago, in what could support this view. Mr. Bemba was also seen as trying to show that he was still politically powerful nationally, said Mr. Bontshi, but, he added, while the country’s opposition had reacted to his candidature respectfully, the ruling party had responded with scorn.

The country’s insipid media has largely taken the announcement of Mr. Bemba’s candidature as a “non-issue” and hardly reacted to it, according to local media analyst Juakali Kambale. “In fact, very few people, even the MLC [fanatics] believe that Bemba will be released in order to be part of the election,” said Kambale.

Mr. Bemba has several times asked ICC judges to let him out of detention, committing to appear in court whenever needed. They have declined each time, agreeing with prosecutors that the accused is an influential and wealthy man who could interfere with witnesses or abscond. It is understood Mr. Bemba is working on a fresh bid to get out of detention, in line with court rules that require judges to review the detention of those in custody at least once every 120 days. Since he was taken in, the former Congolese vice president has twice been out of court precincts – to attend the funerals of his father and his step mother, both in Belgium.

With an impressive roll of more than 300 registered political parties gunning for the hearts of the more than 31 million registered voters, seven notable opposition leaders have already announced their candidatures. However, widespread opinion is that only a joint candidate could dislodge Mr. Kabila. And that candidate needs to court the support of Mr. Bemba – if he himself isn’t that candidate. This is probably why prominent contender Etienne Tshisekedi, a Prime Minister in the1990s, has been to The Hague to visit the MLC chief.

Indeed, as ‘Le Pays’ commented, Mr. Bemba is trying to affirm his presence on the country’s political scene, hoping to convince even the most sceptical that he still controls his party and that he is not politically dead.

Yet the ‘Le Palmarès’ newspaper considered that by the MLC deciding to go alone and endorsing the Bemba candidacy, it was complicating the delicate exercise underway for major parties to field a single candidate. In the 2006 election, Mr. Kabila had to endure a run-off against Mr. Bemba, but he has since changed the constitution to enable him retain the presidency through a simple majority win.

One commentator termed what Mr. Bemba was doing as “virtual politics” that exhibited his desire to remain a key player in Congolese politics, and the “undisputed bull in the MLC kraal.” He remarked, “Bemba is pronouncing that he is available to put up a good fight for the presidency, but that fight will be fought on another day, not in 2011.”