Bemba at the ICC: How much is 18 years?

23 June 2016 by Stephanie van den Berg, The Hague (The Netherlands)

The 18-year sentence the International Criminal Court handed down on Tuesday against former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba [IJT-191, blog] for murders, rapes and pillaging committed by his troops while they were fighting in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 has received a mixed reception. Some experts like Mark Ellis of the International Bar Association told Deutsche Welle he would have “preferred a significantly longer sentence” given the severity of the crimes Bemba was convicted of. Human rights groups focused on the fact that this was the longest sentence handed down by the ICC so far and Bemba's defence pointed it out that it was significantly higher than other convictions under command responsibility by international tribunals.

Just how much is eighteen years compared to other similar cases in different courts? Justice Tribune spoke to criminologist Barbora Hola of the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit faculty of law who studies sentencing of international crimes and has done empirical, quantitative studies of sentences at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and it's sister court for Rwanda, the ICTR.

Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo in the ICC courtroom during the delivery of his sentence on 21 June 2016 (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)
Image caption: 
Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo in the ICC courtroom during the delivery of his sentence on 21 June 2016 (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)

“The sentence compared to the sentencing at the ICTY and the ICTR is relatively harsh. At those courts when superiors are convicted solely on the basis of command responsibility their sentences tend to be lower compared to those for hands-on perpetrators, ” Hola told IJT.

She added she was struck by the way the chamber emphasised the sexual violence and the gravity of the crimes in their sentencing decision.

“The majority of the judgement talks about the impact on victims, citing victims statements and putting a lot weight on the sexual violence. (The chamber) is very much trying to show how deplorable and extremely cruel the crimes were,” she said. ICC prosecutors have made prosecuting sexual and gender based violence a spearpoint of their strategy and Bemba marked the first conviction for sexual crimes at the court.

The severity of the sentence compared to cases at other tribunals play into the hands of Bemba's defence which has already filed an appeal against his conviction. His counsel told IJT Tuesday they believe the sentence is based on the same “legal, procedural and factual errors we say underpinned the conviction”.

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