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Judge Orders Legal Aid for Bemba in Witness Corruption Case

A judge has ordered the Registry at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to advance legal aid to Jean-Pierre Bemba until the court issues a final decision on the former Congolese vice president’s financial status. The judge’s decision follows an appeal by a defense lawyer who claimed the team had reached a point where “it has absolutely no funding.”

During the trial period in his evidence tampering case, the Registry found Bemba partly indigent and provided him some legal aid. However, from July 1, 2016, the Registry cut off all support to Bemba, as the case went into the deliberations stage.

In an August 30 order, Judge Bertram Schmitt faulted the Registry for cutting Bemba’s legal assistance without asking judges how long the deliberations phase was projected to last or reassessing Bemba’s indigence status. This, said the judge, amounted to “procedural errors materially affecting the Registry’s decision.”

Judge Schmitt recalled that the Registry was in the past told to consult the chamber before taking measures that may result in dissolving a defense team during the deliberations phase. This was because if the deliberation period was anticipated to be relatively short, it may cause less overall disruption to maintain a relatively higher level of legal assistance and avoid having to reconstitute the defense team during an appeals phase.

In her petition last month, Bemba’s lawyer Melinda Taylor said that with effect from July 1, 2016, legal aid was cut off completely in the witness tampering trial, “even if the case entered into a possible appellate stage.” According to Taylor’s August 12 application, she had not received a response to her June request to the registry to review its calculations concerning Bemba’s indigency, as required by the court’s legal aid policy. She suggested that the Registry either advances legal aid while the review of Bemba’s indigence is pending determination or provide funds that she said should have been provided to the defense in 2015, if a timely decision on Bemba’s indigence had been issued.

The witness tampering trial is the second case against Bemba at the ICC. Upon his arrest on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity back in 2008, he was found non-indigent by the court, due to the extensive business interests he had at the time. This meant that he, and not the court, had to pay his lawyers. However, his legal team has been funded through monthly loan advances from the Registry because the court ordered the freezing of his assets in his main case. The defense contends that the value of Bemba’s assets has been seriously eroded since his incarceration and that he is unable to convert into cash whatever he still owns.

Judge Schmitt noted that, whereas in cases of partial indigence the Registry should conduct new appraisals for each distinct phase in the proceedings, the Registry undertook no such reappraisal in the witness tampering case, despite expressly informing defense teams that the period between the end of the closing statements and the judgment was considered a new phase in the proceedings. The Bemba defense “was instead forced to seek such an appraisal after being informed its legal assistance would be cut to zero,” he added.

Accordingly, the judge ordered the Registry to provide provisional legal aid to Bemba’s defense from July 1, 2016 until a final determination on his financial status is issued by the court. The judge added that his ruling was dependent on the Bemba defense’s continued diligence in resolving the pending assessment of his indigence.

A judgement in the case, in which Bemba was tried together with two of his lawyers and two other aides, is expected sometime this year.