The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found Jean-Pierre Bemba, the commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role leading the militia that carried out widespread atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) 13 years ago.
Images and video from the courtroom showed a stone-faced Bemba — a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo turned rebel commander — listening to the verdict as he became the most senior level official to receive a guilty verdict from the ICC.
The court issued the verdict on Monday from its headquarters in The Hague, finding Bemba guilty of two counts of crimes against humanity for murder and rape, and three counts of war crimes for murder, rape, and pillaging. The crimes under investigation were committed by the MLC in 2002 and 2003, while it operated in CAR under the permission of then-president Ange-Félix Pattassé.
More than 70 witnesses provided testimony during the trial and this verdict is just the fourth case in history to progress to the final stages at the ICC since the court was established in 2002.
As presiding judge Sylvia Steiner read the judgment summary ahead of the verdict, she focused on the MLC's crimes in CAR and the group's link to Bemba during the time period in question. She referred to Bemba as the figurehead of the militia and outlined the series of events that allegedly took place in 2002 and 2003, explaining the involvement of both Pattassé and MLC forces.
Steiner described crimes of rape and pillaging, saying the MLC made civilians their primary target regardless of age, gender, or social status. The chamber determined that the acts of murder and rape against civilians were carried out by the MLC, finding that its soldiers committed the war crimes of murder, rape, and pillaging beyond a reasonable doubt..
In discussing Bemba's role in the atrocities, the judge underscored that he had the primary authority over military operations and was responsible for the MLC's most important decisions, practicing broad and formal powers. Bemba, the court determined, issued operational orders and exercised primary control over the militia.
The chamber found that while in CAR, his authority over the rebels was not displaced by the country's army, as Bemba's defense had argued, and that he had been in direct contact with contingents in the field. Furthermore, it was found that Bemba failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent the crimes committed by the MLC.
"[Mr. Bemba] exercised effective control over the MLC contingent in the Central African Republic at all relevant times," she said.
The court denied the defense's request for an appeal.
This was the first case that the ICC has prosecuted under Article 28 of the Rome Statute, a treaty which established the ICC's mandate and which brings into question a leader's liability for commanding his or her troops. Open Society Foundations (OSF) describes command responsibility as, "legal liability of a commander or civilian superior for crimes committed by subordinate members of armed forces or other persons under their control."
The Bemba case also saw rape charges as a primary focus, a rare charge pursued by the court and the first time it has been a central charge of a verdict.
Watching the trial from the public gallery, Mariana Pena, a legal officer at OSF, said the reading was very powerful with the accounting of such atrocious events. While the individual tribunals within the ICC have handed out verdicts for sex crimes, this was a first for the court at large. Pena said she hoped this would open the door for prosecuting sexual violence beyond rape, such as sexual slavery or forced marriage.
Authorities arrested Bemba in Belgium in 2008, not long after the court opened its investigation into the MLC's atrocities committed between October 2002 and March 2003. While the militia — which has since transitioned into a political party — is based in Congo with the aim over overthrowing the government in Kinshasa, the group entered CAR at the request of Pattassé to help him fend off a coup from future leader Francois Bozize.
During the trial, the prosecution team said MLC committed "widespread rapes" in parts of the country where it operated, attacking people in front of their family or ordering relatives to rape someone in their family. Witness 22, for example, said three rebel soldiers from the MLC broke into her house and gang-raped her, shot the family dog, and ransacked her property. Another rape victim, Witness 68, said she contracted HIV after she was pinned down by a soldier and raped by two others.
"Sons were sometimes forced to rape their mothers in front of their fathers. MLC troops raped wives in front of their husbands. They raped children in front of their parents," the prosecution said.
Prosecutors argued that the 53-year-old issued direct orders to soldiers and was in the position to stop the atrocities committed by the MLC, a militia founded in 1998. One witness's testimony aimed to link Bemba to the crimes by saying the politician used his or her home to make calls and give orders.
Meanwhile, the defense maintained that during the period in question in CAR Bemba was not in charge of the MLC troops, pleading not guilty on all counts. His lawyers did not deny the crimes in question occurred or not, but said Pattassé and his army were the ones in charge.
The 12-year saga isn't quite over for Bemba. He and five others, including some of his lawyers and politicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are also accused of using bribes to persuade witnesses into providing false testimonies.
While Pena said she was surprised that the verdict reading did not mention the bribery accusations, or how testimonies from the allegedly tainted witnesses might have affected the ruling, she said the fact that another case has stemmed from it sends an important message to future prosecution teams.
Looking forward beyond the witness tampering, the question of reparations is also now in play. Victims can seek reparations at the ICC, but the Bemba case will be the first time an accused actually has the means to pay them. Pena said this aspect will unfortunately take some time to play out, but it will be important to see how the court handles this issue.
"The message that the ICC [would send] to the world is you can not only be convicted for the crimes, but if you have a fortune your money could go to the victims of the crimes," La Pena said.
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