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Judges Close Reparations Proceedings in Bemba’s War Crimes Trial

Following Jean-Pierre Bemba’s acquittal two months ago at the International Criminal Court (ICC), judges have closed the reparations proceedings in the case where the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The acquittal and the closure of the reparations proceedings on August 3, 2018, leave the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) as the primary means through which thousands of victims that participated in Bemba’s trial can have some form of reparations. The court will not issue a reparations order since there was no conviction in the case. A total of 5,229 victims were authorized to participate in Bemba’s trial – the highest number of any case tried by the court.

The TFV, which was established under the Rome Statute in 2002, is mandated to implement court-ordered reparations, and to provide physical and psychosocial rehabilitation or material support to victims of crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the court.

Bemba, 55, was acquitted on June 8, 2018, a decade after his arrest over crimes committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters during a 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). His trial, which opened in November 2010, saw him charged for failing, as a military commander, to stop or punish his troops who raped, murdered, and pillaged.

Whereas Trial Chamber III convicted Bemba in March 2016, a majority of appeals chamber judges ordered his acquittal, which created uncertainty over reparations to victims of crimes committed by his troops a decade and a half ago. Subsequently, Bemba’s lawyers insisted in a filing last month that Trial Chamber III no longer had the ability to make any decisions on reparations.

For its part, the prosecution proposed alternative avenues that could get the victims redress. Among the prosecution’s suggestions were the trial of members of the MLC militia who allegedly perpetrated the crimes, domestic criminal proceedings against Bemba, and civil remedies for victims under national law.

These submissions were made in response to an invitation by judges to the defense, prosecution, and victims’ lawyers to “file consequential submissions on the reparations proceedings.”

In the decision closing the reparations proceedings, the trial chamber agreed with the submissions made that no reparations order could be made against Bemba. “The Chamber must respect the limitations of this Court and recalls that it can only address compensation for harm suffered as a result of crimes when the person standing trial for his or her participation in those crimes has been found guilty,” it stated.

The chamber acknowledged all the victims who participated in the trial proceedings by testifying before the court or sharing their views and concerns in other ways.

Furthermore, the chamber noted submissions by victims’ lawyers that the victims were disappointed and had lost faith in the justice process following Bemba’s acquittal. The judges noted that the Appeals Chamber’s decision to acquit Bemba was not premised on any doubt about the harm suffered by victims participating in the case. They recalled that the Appeals Chamber had recognized that certain crimes occurred in the CAR between 2002 and 2003, and accordingly did not challenge the victims’ status as such.

In addition, Trial Chamber III acknowledged that other individuals who were not admitted as participating victims in Bemba’s case may have suffered harm as a result of crimes under the jurisdiction of the court in the CAR during 2002-2003, and should thus also be considered victims for the purposes of the TFV’s assistance mandate. The judges said, however, that they did not consider it appropriate to make concrete findings on the extent and scope of victimization.

Following Bemba’s acquittal, the TFV announced that it would accelerate the launch of a program to offer physical, psychological, or material support to victims and their families.

There are only three reparations decisions to-date issued by the ICC. In the Thomas Lubanga case, judges set the amount of the former Congolese militia leader’s financial liability for reparations to victims at US$ 10 million. Germain Katanga’s was set at US$ 1 million. Malian national Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, who was convicted for attacking religious and historical monuments, was issued a reparations order of €2.7 million (US$ 3.18 million).

Since these individuals have been found to be indigent, the TFV has sought to find other sources of funding to contribute to the reparations. In the Lubanga case, it has rolled out a three-year US$1.06 million program of collective reparations to victims. In the Katanga case, reparations will include an individual symbolic compensation award of US$250 per victim and four collective awards in the form of housing assistance, education assistance, income-generating activities, and psychological rehabilitation.