On Wednesday, International Criminal Court (ICC) judges heard oral submissions from the prosecution and defense regarding the new sentences that should be handed to Congo’s former vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and his two former lawyers. The three Congolese nationals were found guilty in 2016 of tampering with witnesses who testified for Bemba in his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Whereas the prosecution asked judges to hand the three individuals the maximum penalty of five years plus “a substantial fine,” defense lawyers pleaded for non-custodial sentences. They claimed the time the individuals spent in pre-trial detention was sufficient deterrence and commensurate with the gravity of the offenses that they were convicted of.
Prosecution lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye said the sentences handed down should reflect the true gravity of the numerous crimes that were committed, the seriousness of the criminal conduct that was engaged in by the defendants, the consequences of their actions, and “the actual harm done to the proceedings, the court and to the public confidence” that is necessary for the ICC to fulfill its mandate.
Last March, appeals judges ordered Trial Chamber VII to pronounce new sentences against Bemba, Aimé Kilolo Musamba, and Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo after finding that the chamber committed errors in determining their initial sentences back in March 2017. The Appeals Chamber also reversed one third of the convictions against the trio (presentation of false oral testimony) but confirmed the convictions for giving false testimony and corruptly influencing witnesses.
Bemba was initially handed a one-year prison term and a fine of €300,000 while Kilolo was sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment, with credit for the 11 months he had served in pre-trial detention. Judges ordered the suspension of the remaining term of imprisonment for a period of three years on condition that Kilolo pay a fine of €30,000 within three months and did not reoffend. Mangenda was sentenced to 11 months in jail, suspended for two years.
In their oral submissions, the defendants’ repeated pleas made in their written filings, by urging judges to maintain their initial sentences, or issue lower ones.
However, Vanderpuye urged judges to weigh defense arguments against the circumstances of the victims of the crimes in the main case. He contended that, because Bemba and his lawyers presented tainted evidence, the Appeals Chamber acquitted Bemba, thereby denying the victims justice.
In reference to those victims, Vanderpuye said, “They were before this court as a court of last resort to seek justice; they didn’t get it. The crimes they were victims of were atrocities. They were victims of crimes committed by the MLC [Movement for the Liberation of Congo]. The justice they were entitled to and that this court should have been able to provide them was compromised by the acts of these defendants.”
However, Melinda Taylor, who represents Bemba, noted her client should be given credit for the four and a half years he was in detention since the issuing of a warrant for his arrest in the witness tampering case.
Last month, appeals judges overturned Bemba’s conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity and subsequently released him after nearly 10 years in detention. He had been sentenced to 18 years in jail for those crimes in June 2016.
Bemba’s co-accused in the witness tampering case were given interim release in November 2014 after spending 11 months in pre-trial detention. Bemba remained in detention due to the war case.
Taylor also argued Bemba deserved a lenient sentence because of “the limited nature of his participation” in the offenses. She observed that Bemba was convicted for the lesser offense of solicitation and not for inducement or perpetration of false testimony.
“A fine and a discharge would be the only remedy for the lengthy period he has served [in a] high security detention facility for 10 years,” Taylor said, adding that such a fine can be allocated to victims in the main case to rebuild their lives.
Bemba, Kilolo, and Mangenda were convicted along with two other individuals whose sentences were not reversed by the Appeals Chamber. Congolese Member of Parliament Fidèle Babala Wandu, who was found guilty of corruptly influencing two witnesses, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Former defense witness Narcisse Arido, who was convicted for corruptly influencing four witnesses, was sentenced to 11 months’ imprisonment.
Judges will issue the decision on sentencing in due course.