THE chief war crimes prosecutor Monday hailed a “historic” verdict after judges found former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by his private army in Central African Republic.
“I believe this is a very important day for international criminal justice especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based crimes,” chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told AFP, adding it was a “historic day”.
“The chamber finds that Bemba is criminally responsible for murder, rape, pillage and war crimes” in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003, Judge Sylvia Steiner said in a ruling read at The Hague-based court on Monday.
Bemba had faced two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes related to murder, rape and pillaging committed by his troops in the country.
Bemba, who has already spent almost eight years in detention after being arrested on an ICC warrant in Belgium in May 2008, must now wait to be sentenced. The maximum sentence for the crimes is 30 years.
The defence has 30 days to appeal the decision. Bemba, 53, might receive a sentence of less than eight years, in which case he may be released on the basis of time served.
If released, Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe said he would be allowed to return to Congo. “If he gains his liberty he is free to come back,” Thambwe said March 18 in an interview in the capital, Kinshasa.
Bemba served as one of four vice presidents in a transitional government in Congo between 2003 and 2006 following the end of two civil wars that left more than 5 million people dead.
He finished second to current President Joseph Kabila in the second-round of the 2006 presidential elections with 42% of the vote. In 2007, hundreds of people died in the streets of Kinshasa when forces loyal to the two men clashed in the capital.
Bemba remains president of the opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo. He is still popular in large parts of the country, but will find it increasingly difficult to influence politics there, according to Jason Stearns, a senior fellow at the New York-based Center on International Cooperation.
“His absence from the country has allowed him to be eclipsed by other players,” Stearns said by e-mail. “He will have to fight hard to remain relevant from behind bars.”