Former Congolese VP Bemba convicted of witness tampering at war crimes court

The ICC said that 14 key witnesses had been coached about what to say and that Bemba and four other defendants had conspired to present false evidence

Congolese former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and his defence team bribed witnesses to lie in his defence at a war crimes trial that ended in the highest ranking conviction by the International Criminal Court (ICC), judges ruled on Wednesday.

The court said that 14 key witnesses had been coached about what to say and that Bemba and four other defendants had conspired to present false evidence to the court.

The conviction for witness tampering broke new legal ground for the ICC, which in March found Bemba guilty of leading a four-month campaign of looting, rape and murder in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

Supporters of Bemba, who is appealing his conviction and 18-year sentence for overseeing a campaign of rape and murder in the Central African Republic more than a decade ago, had no immediate comment.

Judges ruled the politician, who served as vice president from 2003 to 2006, failed to discipline or restrain his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers as they rampaged through the neighbouring country in 2002 and 2003 when they found him guilty in March this year.

As part of a systematic effort to interfere with the trial, Bemba and his team used secret phones and code language to instruct witnesses in exchange for cash, promises of relocation, computers and other bribes, the court found.

“No legal system in the world can accept the bribing of witnesses, the inducement of witnesses to lie or the illicit coaching of witnesses,” said the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, who read out the summary of the decision in court. “Today’s judgment sends the clear message that the court is not willing to allow its proceedings to be hampered or destroyed.”

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The decision comes as the  court faces criticism because all of its convictions thus far have been related to crimes committed in Africa. This month, lawmakers in Burundi voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the treaty that established the court; Burundi would be the first country to withdraw. The United States never ratified the treaty.

Witness and evidence tampering have plagued of all international courts and tribunals over the past two decades. Tribunals dealing with Lebanon, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia have all handed down fines and prison sentences for contempt of court. The use and misuse of evidence and witnesses have haunted the ICC since its first trial  was heard in 2009.

Its two most prominent cases to date, against Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his vice president, William Ruto, both of whom were charged with crimes against humanity, disintegrated when the prosecution withdrew its charges. Prosecutors complained of allegations of witness tampering, threats, bribery and obstruction, and said they could no longer proceed.

“Today’s judgment sends the clear message that the court is not willing to allow its proceedings to be hampered or destroyed,” Schmitt said.

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