Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was sentenced on Tuesday by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to 18 years in jail for crimes committed by soldiers who were under his command in Central African Republic over a decade ago.
“The chamber sentences Mr. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to a total of 18 years’ imprisonment,” said judge Sylvia Steiner, ruling that his soldiers had carried out “sadistic” rapes, murders and pillaging of “particular cruelty.”
ICC prosecutors had urged that Bemba be imprisoned for at least 25 years, saying such a sentence would be justified by “the gravity of the offenses committed by Mr. Bemba and his degree of culpability.”
Bemba’s lawyers, for their part, had called for him to be released, pointing out that he had already spent eight years in jail before and during his trial.
The trial opened in November 2010.
Campaign of rape and murder
Bemba was found guilty in March on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over a decade ago in the neighboring Central African Republic.
The Congolese rebel leader had sent his private army, called the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), to CAR from October 2002 to March 2003 to put down a coup attempt there against former President Ange-Felix Patasse. The ICC found Bemba guilty of having let his troops rape, murder and pillage across the country.
Bemba is the highest-ranking official so far to be convicted by the ICC, which was set up in 2002 as the world’s only permanent war crimes court. The court has only sentenced two other people before him: former Congolese warlords Germain Katanga and Thomas Lubanga.
His trial was also the first at the court to focus on rape as a weapon of war. Bemba has been charged among other things with failing to prevent gang rapes of men, women and children by some of his 1,500 soldiers.
In addition, he is the first person to be convicted by the court for crimes carried out by his subordinates.
Bemba’s legal team gave notice late on Monday that the former vice president would appeal his conviction.
“The appeal will not be limited… to criticism of the trial chamber’s findings, but will also allege that in material respects the whole trial process was flawed and unfair and that Mr. Bemba’s rights as an accused were violated throughout,” defense lawyer Peter Haynes said in a filing to the court.
Bemba’s lawyers have constantly claimed that he is being held responsible for actions by some of his soldiers that he had no way of controlling.
Reading out the sentence on Tuesday, judge Steiner rejected their claim that Bemba was not answerable for his soldiers’ actions.
“Mr. Bemba’s failure to take action was deliberately aimed at encouraging the attacks directed against the civilian population,” she said, saying he had done “more than tolerate the crimes as a commander.”
Bemba, who after the CAR conflict served as one of four vice presidents in the transitional government of President Joseph Kabila, was arrested in Brussels in 2008 and handed over to the ICC.
He had fled to Belgium in 2007 after losing to Kabila in a presidential run-off the year before.
The former rebel group MLC has in the meantime become the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second-largest opposition party, which is still led by Bemba.
tj/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)