Prosecution delivers in its first big fish case

21 March 2016 by Stephanie van den Berg

Judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday ruled that Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba's troops raped, murdered and pillaged civilians in the Central African Republic and that he, as their commander, could be held criminally responsible. The ruling is a historic one for the ICC as it is the first time the court has handed down convictions for sexual and crimes and also a first conviction on the basis of command responsibility [IJT-191].

Bemba was convicted for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003, when Bemba was asked by then CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé to provide support during a civil war.

The judges ruled that Bemba as the commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), he knew that crimes were committed or about to be committed by his troops in CAR and he did nothing to stop or punish them.

During the trial Bemba, a former Congolese senator and vice-president, had argued that he had relinquished control over his troops to the CAR authorities at the time the crimes were committed.

But in a devastating judgement for the accused the judges not only found that his troops targeted civilians as they raped, murdered and looted but also that he had complete and effective control over his MLC troops even in CAR. The fact that he took no action to stop crimes or punish them was "deliberately aimed at encouraging attacks", the judges found. A hearing where Bemba's sentence will be determined,  will be set for a later date.

The case is a triumph for the ICC office of the prosecutor who has made prosecution of sexual and gender-based crimes a priority [IJT-179]. In the judgement summary the judges named over 30 rape victims: men, women and girls, one as young as ten years old.

"In this case, the number of rapes committed against civilians exceeded the number of murders. This campaign had horrific consequences and resulted in great victimization. Justice plays an important role. We must continue to strive for the prosecution and accountability of those responsible for such crimes until they are a thing of the past," ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.

Bemba's conviction is also a resounding success for the NGO's like French rights watch-dog FIDH who have worked for many years getting the crimes in CAR prosecuted. Marceau Sivieude, who was part of FIDH's original investigation into CAR crimes, says this first ever verdict that deals with the 2002/2003 crimes will have an impact in the country.

“After 14 years this is only the first judgement by an independent body on the crimes on the largely forgotten 2002/2003 conflict,” he told IJT.

“I hope the echo will give a boost to the establishment of of a special criminal court at the national level,” he said.

In CAR this verdict will mean a lot Sivieude said especially for the hundreds and hundreds of victims. “There was never any justice done on the national level and Bemba was not some mid-level commander. He was very well known by the inhabitants of CAR and feared,” he said.

In the summary of the judgement the judges repeatedly referred to FIDH reports which had been sent to Bemba at the time of the conflict and his responses to the rights watchdog as proof that he was well aware that his troops were committing crimes and chose not to act.




Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo in the ICC courtroom during the delivery of his verdict on 21 March 2016 (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)