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Bemba in Belgium After Release From ICC Detention

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese opposition leader freed from International Criminal Court (ICC) detention last Friday, was released to Belgium, whose government did not object to his presence in the country.

The 55-year-old former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo has a home in Belgium, where his wife and children live. He was initially arrested from the country back in May 2008 before being handed over to the ICC in July of that year.

Last Tuesday, Trial Chamber VII judges ordered Bemba’s release pending the determination of his new sentence in a case where he was convicted for tampering with witnesses. The decision followed his June 8, 2018 acquittal following an appeal in his main trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

According to a statement from the court, following requisite consultations to implement the interim release order, Bemba was released on the territory of Belgium. The statement indicated that, in April 2014, the Belgian government and the ICC signed an agreement on the interim release of detainees to Belgian territory.

As part of the conditions for his interim release, Bemba is expected to immediately surrender to authorities if required by the trial chamber, provide his address and contact information to the court and Belgian authorities, and not change the address without prior notice to the court.

In ordering his release, judges considered it “disproportionate” to further detain Bemba “merely to ensure his appearance for sentencing.” They found that there was no risk of Bemba obstructing or endangering investigations as his conviction for offenses against the administration of justice “are final after being confirmed on appeal” and what remains is the redetermination of his sentence.

Bemba was convicted in October 2016 for giving false testimony and corruptly influencing witnesses. Under the court’s rules, the penalty for such offenses is a prison sentence not exceeding five years, a fine, or both. He had earlier been sentenced to a one-year prison term and a fine of €300,000, but the ICC Appeals Chamber subsequently ordered that a new sentence be handed down to Bemba and his two former lawyers who were similarly convicted for witness tampering.

The 14 witnesses Bemba is alleged to have tampered with testified in his defense in the main trial in which he was acquitted by the Appeals Chamber. Their testimony mostly related to the conduct of Bemba’s troops, who were deployed in the Central African Republic during a 2002-2003 conflict, and whether they were under the command of Bemba or that of the Central African army.

At a hearing last week, defense lawyer Melinda Taylor argued that Bemba had been detained for more than four years and six months since the Article 70 warrant for tampering with witnesses was served on him. Prior to that, he had been detained for five and half years on account of the charges for which he was acquitted. Taylor added that having already served four and half times the initial sentence handed to him, Bemba was not a flight risk because he had served “any potential sentence” that may be handed down for his conviction under Article 70 of the court’s Rome Statute.

The court will hold a status conference next month to hear arguments by the prosecution, the defense, and victims’ lawyers on the new sentences.