Bemba faces long jail sentence following first ICC trial to focus on rape as a weapon of war. By Rita Hernandes
JEAN-PIERRE Bemba, The former DR Congo vice-president, has been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Central African Republic (CAR) more than a decade ago.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) finally found the 53 year-old warlord guilty after a five-year trial that began in November 2010.
It is a significant verdict as it is the first time the ICC focused on the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The verdicts focused on his responsibility as a military commander for the actions of his troops. He commanded a private army of 1.500 men who went on a spree of murder, rape and pillage.
It is a legal principle established by other UN tribunals that makes a commander responsible for failing to take actions to stop crimes he knows are being committed by subordinates.
Prosecutors told the court that Bemba, who led the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), “knew that the troops were committing crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”.
More than 5,000 victims received the right to participate in the hearings, which is the highest number in any of the previous cases presented in the court.
Bemba was convicted of two counts of crimes against humanity, involving murder and rape, as well as three counts of war crimes — murder, rape and pillaging — all connected to attacks in CAR between 2002 and 2003.
His troops had entered the country as part of a military intervention on the side of then president, Ange-Felix Patasse, who was eventually ousted.
During the trial, which ended last month, more than 40 witnesses testified. One described being raped by two MLC soldiers. She was later diagnosed with HIV/Aids.
Men, women and children were all raped - in one case three generations of the same family were gang-raped by MLC soldiers.
The presiding Brazilian judge, Sylvia Steiner, said MLC soldiers had opened fire on civilians without regard to age or gender. “The civilian population was the primary rather than the incidental target of the attack,” she said in her judgment.
In a graphic description of the attacks by Steiner, she said “MLC soldiers by force knowingly and intentionally invaded the bodies of the victims by penetrating the victims’ anuses, vaginas or other bodily openings with their penises.” On occasions family members were forced, at gunpoint, to watch.
His defence lawyers insisted he had no control over his 1,500 troops. “There is not a single documentary piece of evidence that shows any orders passing from Bemba and going to his troops in Central African Republic,” Kate Gibson, representing him, said in her closing argument.
The prosecution, however, argued that he was aware of the actions of his troops and should therefore be held accountable for not putting a stop to it.
Bemba, fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after losing a presidential poll, he was later arrested in Belgium in 2008 and transferred to the ICC’s detention centre in The Hague. His arrest came as a surprise both to Bemba, his supporters and opponents at home. He had been living in semiexile in Europe for several years when prosecutors sprung a trap by issuing an arrest warrant during a visit to Belgium.
Amnesty International said the guilty verdict against Bemba was a “historic moment in the battle for justice” for victims of sexual violence in CAR and around the world.
Angelina Jolie Pitt, who has been lobbying for the abolishment of sexual violence as a weapon of war, said in a statement “My thoughts and my admiration go out to the survivors and witnesses who bravely testified in this case and contributed to this landmark conviction.
“It is shocking that this conviction is the first of its kind. It is a reminder of how long it has taken us to reach this point, and how many victims have never seen justice,” she added.
The verdict means more cases of the same kind will be brought to the ICC .
It also means soldiers can no longer get away with raping and pillaging civilians to incite fear and psychologically torment their victims.
Bemba will be sentenced at a later date and could face up to 30 years in jail or a life sentence, if the court considers that it is “justified by the extreme gravity of the crime”.
In Congo, despite the revelations of the ICC trial, Jean-Pierre Bemba still enjoys significant popularity.
Members of his opposition party had hoped he would be released in time to run in the next presidential election, which is scheduled for the end of this year.
Bemba helped to form the MLC rebel group in Uganda in 1998. In 2003, he became vice-president under a peace deal and looked towards become his country’s leader. However, in 2006, Joseph Kabila beat him a run-off election, despite strong support for him in western DR Congo including Kinshasha. A year later Bemba fled to Belgium where he was later arrested and handed over to the ICC.