Former Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is serving an 18-year prison sentence at the International Criminal Court (ICC), has pleaded with appeals judges to lower his sentence, arguing that the nearly ten years he has spent in detention are a sufficient sentence.
Bemba is also appealing the conviction decision, arguing that his fair trial rights were abused during the trial. He argues that judges dismissed all evidence submitted by the defense that exonerated him and instead based its conviction on weak prosecution evidence.
At an appeal hearing last week, defense lawyer Kate Gibson said the 18-year sentence was disproportionate to the conviction, adding that it is “in fact so unreasonable as to constitute an abuse of the Trial Chamber’s discretion.”
However, the prosecution and legal representatives of victims argued that the sentence Bemba received was lower than what he deserved. In March 2016, Bemba was convicted of murder, rape, and pillaging stemming from his failure to take reasonable measures to deter or punish his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops as they brutalized civilians in the Central African Republic during 2002 and 2003.
In her submissions, Gibson said Bemba was convicted on the basis of three murders, 28 rapes, and 16 instances of pillaging, yet at sentencing the trial chamber claimed these crimes were only a portion of the total number of crimes committed by MLC troops. “If crimes have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt as being the responsibility of Mr. Bemba, then they are irrelevant for sentencing purposes,” she said.
In addition, the defense lawyer dismissed the prosecution’s claim that Bemba’s case “is perhaps the most serious case in which a person has been exclusively convicted of superior responsibility in the history of international criminal law.” She cited what she considered more serious cases, such as those of Colonel Aloys Ntabakuze and Augustin Bizimungu, who were convicted as superiors for genocide, extermination, and other serious crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Gibson said unlike many commanders convicted in ad hoc tribunals, Bemba did not encourage his troops or personally participate as they committed rape and murder. She said, “He didn’t order the perpetration of crimes, he didn’t intend the crimes to occur. He wasn’t motivated by any particular religious or ethnic hatred. He didn’t have any discriminatory motive.”
Rather, added Gibson, Bemba’s culpability arose from his failures regarding a fraction of his troops fighting in a foreign conflict thousands of miles from his base in Congo. She said in terms of the 54 commanders who have previously been sentenced by international courts, “You will not find a commander who is more arm’s length from the crime base, who had less personal involvement in the conflict, and who took anywhere near the same measures to investigate and prosecute” the crimes.
However, Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a lawyer for victims, said sentencing Bemba to 18 years in prison did not correspond to the seriousness of the crimes he was convicted for. “There are victims who felt that it was as if Mr. Bemba simply killed one individual, whereas in this case these are widespread cases or crimes,” she said. “Another victim went even further by stating that this was an insult.”
For its part, the prosecution is asking judges to raise the prison sentence to a minimum of 25 years. Reinhold Gallmetzer said the prosecution does not contest the individual sentences of 18 years for the crimes of rape, 16 years for murder, and 16 years for pillaging. However, it contends that trial judges erred by finding that 18 years for the crimes of rape reflect the totality of Bemba’s culpability and therefore imposed a joint sentence of 18 years.
Furthermore, Gallmetzer said trial judges failed to provide sufficient reasoning, as required by Article 78(3) of the Rome Statute, for ordering that the individual sentences run concurrently. He also said the trial chamber failed to weigh and balance factors relevant to ordering a joint sentence, such as all forms of harm caused to all victims of the crimes for which Bemba was convicted.
Gallmetzer asked the Appeals Chamber to ensure that a sentence has a general deterrent effect. “A joint sentence higher than 18 years would send a signal that there is an extra cost for committing multiple crimes and multiple types of crimes, even if all crimes are committed in the same factual context,” he argued.