The constitutional court in the Democratic Republic of Congo has barred Jean-Pierre Bemba from running for president of the vast central African country, after determining that his 2016 conviction for witness tampering at the International Criminal Court (ICC) rendered his candidacy inadmissible.
Bemba, a former rebel leader and vice president, returned to Congo last month after a decade of detention in The Hague, following his acquittal of war crimes and crimes against humanity charges. However, on August 24 the electoral commission declined to include him on the roll of nominated candidates for the December 2018 poll, citing Bemba’s conviction by the world court in his second case of witness tampering.
He appealed to the country’s constitutional court, which then pronounced its verdict on Monday this week, upholding the electoral commission’s determination that since the country’s electoral law barred anyone with a corruption conviction from standing for election, Bemba’s ICC conviction rendered his candidature unacceptable. The constitutional court stated that the convicted charges at the ICC were the equivalent of corruption.
Bemba was convicted alongside his two former lawyers for corruptly influencing some of the witnesses that testified in his main trial to give false testimony. The offences attract a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine, or both. The sentences will be announced in The Hague on September 17.
Following the pronouncement by the constitutional court, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the party headed by Bemba, reportedly asked that the ICC be more “precise” on its ruling against Bemba, arguing that he had been unfairly banned by the constitutional court. It also called an emergency meeting to review the situation, and threatened to call mass protests.
For his part, Bemba was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, “the constitutional court, like the electoral commission, are institutions that are taking orders from the ruling power, which wants to choose the candidates that will oppose the regime’s pick.” He denounced the looming election as a sham, saying it was being controlled by the government.
Bemba is the second major opposition contender to be barred from running for president. Moise Katumbi, a wealthy businessman and governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, was last month barred from returning home to file his nomination papers. He has lived in exile in Belgium since May 2016, after fleeing when he was threatened with arrest for treason. He was convicted in absentia for alleged real estate fraud.
President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001 when he succeeded his assassinated father, has fronted with Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as the ruling coalition’s candidate. As interior minister between 2016 and February 2018, Shadary oversaw the violent crackdown on protesters that agitated for an end to Kabila’s rule.
Opinion poll results published at the end of July showed that the three main opposition candidates each had between 17 per cent and 19 per cent of the vote, while candidates from the ruling coalition would get a combined total of 19 per cent.
With two of the three leading opposition candidates knocked out of the running, Félix Tshisekedi, head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), remains the biggest threat to the ruling coalition’s candidate. He took over the mantle of the country’s leading opposition party last year, following the death of its long-time leader, also his father, Étienne Tshisekedi. He is considered less politically experienced than Bemba, who has been a vice president and senator.
Between 1998 and 2003, the MLC, with the assistance of the Ugandan government, waged war against the government of Congo. Following a peace agreement, Bemba became one of the country’s four vice presidents, serving in this role between July 2003 and December 2006.
In the presidential election of August 2006, he emerged second with 20 percent of the vote, second to the incumbent, Kabila, who took 44 percent of the vote. In the run-off between the two, Kabila was announced winner with 58 percent of the vote. In early 2007, Bemba won a senate seat in the capital but it is unclear if he would be allowed to stand again for this position after his ICC conviction.