Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel-turned-opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been found guilty of crimes, including rape and murder, which were committed by his troops against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In a unanimous judgement announced at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this afternoon, judges determined that Bemba knew that his forces were committing or about to commit crimes, but he failed to take reasonable measures to deter or to punish these crimes.
According to the judges, Bemba’s actions, which included general public statements to troops not to mistreat civilians, formation of two investigative commissions, and the trial of seven low-ranking soldiers on charges of pillaging goods of limited value, were “a grossly inadequate response to the consistent information of widespread crimes committed by MLC soldiers in the CAR of which Mr. Bemba had knowledge.”
Bemba, 53, is the most senior figure whose trial at the ICC has reached judgement stage. At the time of his arrest in Brussels in 2008, he was a senator in Congo and leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Previously, he had served as one of the country’s vice presidents in a unity government formed under a peace accord following years of armed conflict in DRC. Prior to that, he had in 1998 founded the MLC with support from Uganda’s army, through which he controlled nearly one-third of DRC’s territory.
The trials of three other Congolese nationals were finalized earlier by the court. In 2013, Thomas Lubanga was handed a 14-year prison sentence over the use of child soldiers, while Germain Katanga was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2014. Mathieu Ngudjolo, also a former rebel leader, was in 2012 acquitted. Last December, Lubanga and Katanga were transferred to Congo to serve the remainder of their sentences. Ngudjolo also returned to Congo last year after unsuccessfully applying for refugee status in The Netherlands.
Bemba was charged with two counts of crimes against humanity: murder and rape; and three counts of war crimes: murder, rape, and pillaging. Trial Chamber III, which tried the Congolese politician, was composed of judges Sylvia Steiner (presiding), Joyce Aluoch, and Kuniko Ozaki.
Bemba pleaded not guilty to all charges, stating that once he sent his troops to the CAR to help the country’s then president, Angé-Felix Patassé, fight off a coup attempt, the troops fell under the Central African army’s command. He also claimed he lacked the means to issue orders to troops deployed in the neighboring country.
However, judges determined that Bemba had direct communication lines with commanders in the field, and he “could and did offer operational orders” to troops deployed in the CAR. They found that although Bemba was not present in the CAR, he was able to talk directly via radios and satellite phones to commanders on the ground in that country.
The judges stated that Bemba maintained effective control over the MLC contingent in the conflict country at all times and that those Congolese soldiers were not subordinated to the hierarchy of the Central African army.
Judge Steiner noted that evidence demonstrated that during 2002-2003, MLC troops committed many acts of rape, murder, and pillaging over a large geographical area in the CAR. She said the multiple acts of rape and murder committed by Bemba’s troops “constituted a course of conduct and not merely isolated or random acts.”
Judges stated that Bemba should have ensured that his troops were adequately trained in international humanitarian law, issued orders aimed at bringing the relevant practices into accord with the rules of war, and taken disciplinary measures to prevent the commission of atrocities by forces under his command. He could also have issued orders specifically meant to prevent the crimes, as opposed to merely issuing routine orders; protested against or criticized criminal conduct; or insisted before a superior authority that immediate action be taken.
The judges also determined that Bemba as commander could have postponed military operations; suspended, excluded, or redeployed violent subordinates; and conducted military operations in such a way as to lower the risk of specific crimes or to remove opportunities for their commission.
In a press statement, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the decision “affirms…that commanders are responsible for the acts of the forces under their control.” Even more significant, she noted that the verdict “highlighted the critical need to eradicate sexual and gender-based crimes as weapons of war in conflict by holding accountable those who fail to exercise their duties and responsibilities that their status as commanders and leaders entail.”
During the trial, Bemba suffered some problems with his defense. In February 2012, lead defense counsel Nkwebe Liriss passed away in DRC, paving the way for Aime Kilolo Musamba to take charge of the defense case. In November 2013, however, Kilolo was arrested along with case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, for allegedly bribing witnesses and coaching them to provide false testimony. Peter Haynes, who was also a member of the defense at the time, took over as lead defense counsel.
The trial opened in November 2010, with the submission of evidence ending in April 2014. However, in November of that year, upon request by the defense, judges recalled Witness 169, who initially testified in July 2011, to testify about alleged collusion between prosecution witnesses and promises or benefits provided by the prosecution in exchange for witness testimony. The trial heard 77 witnesses: 40 called by the prosecution, 34 called by the defense, two witnesses called by victims’ lawyers and one witness called by judges. A total of 5,229 persons were granted the status of victims participating in the trial.
A date for Bemba’s sentencing hearing will be set shortly. His conviction means he will remain in detention until the sentencing.
Article 76 of the Rome Statute provides that in the event of a conviction, judges shall consider the appropriate sentence to be imposed and shall take into account the evidence presented and submissions made during the trial that are relevant to the sentence. A sentencing hearing is held to hear additional evidence or submissions on the sentence. Once a sentence is handed down, the number of years already spent in ICC detention is subtracted from the term served.