Global Policy Forum

Congolese Ex-Rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba Faces ICC trial


 Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of DRC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court. He faces five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity - crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) when he was a militia leader. He is the most high-profile person to face trial by the ICC. At a pre-trial news conference, a video conference with the capitals of DRC and CAR enabled local journalists to question the ICC's chief prosecutor and defence counsel. However, the ICC still remains far removed from the majority of Africans, which leads to widespread questioning of its legitimacy.


November 22, 2010

Jean-Pierre Bemba faces five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity

The war crimes trial of Congolese former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has begun at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The former vice-president of DR Congo is accused of murder, rape and pillage in the Central African Republic (CAR).

He is the most high-profile figure to face trial at the ICC since it began its work eight years ago.

The ICC chief prosecutor says the trial will show that commanders are responsible for their troops' actions.

The trial is expected to last several months.

One of the interesting aspects of the pre-trial news conference in The Hague was a video link with Kinshasa and Bangui - capitals of the Democratic Republic and the Central African Republic.

The sometimes shaky technology meant the connection was not perfect, but it was generally sufficient for local journalists to put a range of questions to the ICC's chief prosecutor and the defence counsel.

A reporter in Kinshasa wanted to know why Jean-Pierre Bemba was on trial, and why the former leader of the CAR, Ange-Felix Patasse, was a free man. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo replied that Mr Bemba had been the man "most responsible" for the crimes committed.

The then CAR leader had deployed Mr Bemba's MLC forces, but that was not a crime, he said. "We had to prosecute those who committed crimes... and it was Bemba's troops who had raped and pillaged."

The 48-year-old denies two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.

At the time of the alleged crimes in 2002-3, Mr Bemba was a militia leader in DR Congo, but his forces crossed the border from their stronghold in the northern Equateur province into the neighbouring country of CAR to help the president put down a coup attempt.

It is alleged that attacks carried out by his troops against the civilian population were widespread and systematic, with more than 400 people - women and men - raped.

Politically convenient?

Mr Bemba's lawyers say that once his forces crossed the border, they were under the control of the CAR authorities.

Defence lawyer Aime Kilolo said the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) fighters "fought in the uniform of the Central African Republic", reports the AFP news agency.

But ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that as MLC commander, Mr Bemba bore responsibility for their actions - and said this was an important international legal precedent.

"The judges' definition of the responsibility of the commander will be a warning for all the military commanders in the world," he said ahead of the trial.

After his forces intervened in CAR, Mr Bemba became a vice-president in DR Congo as part of a 2003 power-sharing deal between the government and various rebel groups to end years of conflict.

Three years later, he stood in DR Congo's first democratic elections, losing a run-off against President Joseph Kabila. His supporters staged sometimes violent protests, claiming he had been cheated of victory.

He was arrested in Brussels in 2008, and handed over to the ICC.

His lawyers have claimed that the trial is intended to remove him from the Congolese political scene - allegations dismissed by both the ICC and the Congolese government.

His is the third ICC case to go to trial - the two previous ones concern the conflict in DR Congo.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is also being tried at the The Hague but is being prosecuted by a special war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, rather than the ICC.

The ICC was established as a permanent court, so a special tribunal did not have to be set up after each conflict in which war crimes were allegedly committed.


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