Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba has been sentenced to 18 years in jail following his conviction for failing to prevent his troops from committing crimes. The sentence is the longest ever to be handed out at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has so far convicted three individuals.
Judge Sylvia Steiner, who presided over Bemba’s trial that opened in November 2010, said the crimes of rape, pillaging, and murder committed by Bemba’s soldiers were of “serious gravity,” and were committed with particular cruelty against defenseless civilians. She also said at the sentencing hearing that Bemba did not genuinely intend to take all reasonable measures to repress the commission of crimes. Instead, his actions were means to counter public allegations and “rehabilitate the public image” of his group.
Last March, Trial Chamber III of the ICC found Bemba guilty of two counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity. In the unanimous judgement, judges said Bemba knew that his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops were committing or about to commit crimes, but he failed to take reasonable measures to deter or to punish these crimes.
He was today sentenced to 18 years for rape as a war crime and 18 years for rape as a crime against humanity. For the rest of the crimes, he was sentenced to 16 years. However, judges ruled that the sentences shall be served concurrently.
Judge Steiner said acts of murder were committed in front of other civilians, including family members, and were often accompanied by pillaging and rape. “When their rape was known by the community, victims were ostracized, socially rejected, and stigmatized,” she noted. Moreover, the judges noted that the rape was committed over a large geographical area and against defenseless civilians. Judge Steiner remarked that eight of the rape victims were aged 10 to 17 years, rendering them especially vulnerable and defenseless.
Given the scope of rape and the extent of damage caused, the chamber found that the crimes of rape was “of utmost seriousness.” Some attacks were “especially sadistic,” with entire families – the elderly, men, women, and children victimized in turn during the same attacks by the same soldiers, noted the judge.
The eight years that Bemba has spent in ICC detention will be deducted from the sentence he will serve, which means that he will remain in jail for a maximum of 10 years. However, according to the court’s rules, once a convicted person has served two-thirds of their sentence, judges can review the sentence and grant them early release. Bemba may therefore qualify for early release in mid-2020.
The 18-year sentence handed down to Bemba is lower than the 25 years that Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had proposed. She argued earlier that Bemba bore the “highest degree” of culpability for the crimes committed by the MLC. The prosecutor said that a long sentence for Bemba “would also pursue the objective of deterring other military commanders from committing similar crimes.” She argued that while each individual soldier who commits a war crime is criminally liable for the acts they commit, a military commander who fails to exercise their authority to stop these atrocities is responsible for the cumulative whole of the criminal acts of all subordinate forces.
For their part, defense lawyers had asked judges to hand the Congolese opposition leader a light sentence, arguing that the time he has already spent in jail is proportionate to the crimes he was convicted for. The defense argued that Bemba did not order his troops to commit crimes nor did he witness or participate in committing the crimes.
Article 77 of the court’s founding law, the Rome Statute, provides that the court may sentence a convicted person to a maximum of 30 years, or life imprisonment when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person.
Bemba, 53, is the most senior figure to be sentenced by the court. At the time of his arrest in Belgium in 2008, he was a senator in the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader of the main opposition party, the 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. Earlier in 1998, he founded the MLC with support from Uganda’s army, through which he controlled nearly one-third of Congo’s vast territory.
Bemba is the third Congolese national to be convicted by the court. In 2013, ICC judges handed Thomas Lubanga 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 Congolese rebel leader, was acquitted in 2012.
On April 4, 2016, Bemba’s lawyers filed notice of intention to appeal against his conviction. The following day, the defense applied for an extension of time limit for filing its appeal from 90 to 180 days. On April 15, appeals judge’s granted the defense request, giving them until September 19, 2016 to file the appeal. It remains unclear whether the defense or prosecution will appeal against the 18 year sentence.