Today, Jean-Pierre Bemba’s former lead defense lawyer and two associates were released from International Criminal Court (ICC) detention. The trio, along with another former lawyer to the Congolese opposition leader, had been held in The Hague for nearly a year on accusations of bribing witnesses and forging evidence.
According to a statement from the court, defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo Musamba was released in Belgium, Bemba’s former chief of staff Fidèle Babala Wandu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and defense witness Narcisse Arido in France. Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, who was Mr. Bemba’s case manager at the time of his arrest, will be released as soon as the ICC Registry finalized all the necessary arrangements.
On Tuesday this week, pre-trial judge Cuno Tarfusser ordered the release of the four suspects, saying their continued detention would be disproportionate to the penalties for the offences charged.
Yesterday, Pre-Trial Chamber II judges rejected an application by prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to overturn the release order and maintain the detention of the quartet. The prosecutor claimed there was a “real danger” that once released, the suspects may not appear at trial or when summoned by the court, “frustrating the entire purpose of the proceedings against them.”
Ms. Bensouda argued that the suspects would be released to four different jurisdictions that were not obliged to monitor them. She also said the release order did not impose any additional conditions apart from the suspects’ own commitment to appear at trial.
The appeals judges also dismissed Ms. Bensouda’s application for suspensive effect of Judge Tarfusser’s release decision. They noted that the suspects are alleged to have committed offenses under Article 70 of the Rome Statute, which carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, and they have already spent “several” months in pre-trial detention.
On balance, said the appeals judges, they did not consider it appropriate to exercise their discretion to grant suspensive effect. They stated that while the Appeals Chamber has previously granted requests for suspensive effect in cases concerning the release of an individual, the decision to grant suspensive effect was always discretionary and depended upon the individual circumstances of the case. (The Appeals Chamber granted suspensive effect to an interim release order for Jean-Pierre Bemba back in September 2009.)
In the release order, Judge Tarfusser noted that the relevant evidence in the case had been acquired, thus reducing the risk of the suspects endangering investigations and committing the alleged offences again.
However, in her appeal Ms Bensouda argued that all four suspects had previously been recognized as posing “concrete flight risks” and that all had a network of supporters and the financial means to enable their absconding from the court’s jurisdiction.
Mr. Bemba, who has been on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity since November 2010, also faces the witness tampering and evidence forgery accusations. He remains in ICC detention on account of his ongoing trial. In the coming months, judges will issue a written ruling on whether the witness tampering charges can go to trial.