Tomorrow, judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) will announce the verdict in appeals against Jean Pierre Bemba’s conviction and the 18-year prison sentence handed to him two years ago.
The former Congolese vice president, who has been in the court’s custody since July 2008, has asked the Appeals Chamber to quash his conviction or to lower the sentence and release him even if the conviction is upheld. The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has asked judges to raise the prison sentence to 25 years.
Bemba was unanimously convicted over two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape); and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). The crimes were committed during an armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and March 2003 when Bemba deployed his militia known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) into that country to assist its then-president to fight off an armed insurrection.
Bemba’s trial, which started in November 2010, was the first conducted at the ICC in which an accused was convicted over “command responsibility,” meaning that a commander is punishable for crimes committed by their subordinates. Trial judges established 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.
Trial judges also determined that Bemba had direct communication lines with commanders in the field, and that, although he was not in the CAR, he “could and did offer operational orders” from Congo to troops deployed in the neighboring country.
The defense appeal against conviction focuses on the level of control Bemba had over the troops in the CAR, whether he knew about the crimes, what actions he took to deter and punish them, and whether his group had an organizational policy to attack civilians. Furthermore, the defense has argued that, even if the conviction is upheld, Bemba’s sentence was disproportionate, and the 10 years he has already spent in ICC detention was sufficient time served.
Defense lawyer Kate Gibson has argued that 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 compared to 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.
In its appeal, the prosecution argued that any measures Bemba could have taken but did not are evidence of his culpable action. They maintained that as determined by the chamber, Bemba took few and grossly inadequate measures to deter the crimes; and that had he taken sufficient measures, “crimes would have been prevented or not occurred in manner they did.”
The appeals judgement will be delivered at 16.00 local time in The Hague.