In historic war crimes ruling, former Congo rebel leader sentenced to 18 years

Jean-Pierre Bemba is the first leader to be convicted by the International Criminal Court for the crimes of his soldiers.

Michael Kooren/AP, Pool
Jean-Pierre Bemba takes his seat in the court room of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday, June 21, 2016.

Former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.

Mr. Bemba, who led the Mouvement de Libération du Congo, a rebel-group-turned political party, also led a 2002-03 campaign of rape and murder in the Central African Republic during the country’s civil war, the court said.

On March 21, he was found guilty of three war crimes – murder, rape, and pillaging – and two crimes against humanity (murder and rape), according to an International Criminal Court (ICC) press release. Bemba will serve all sentences concurrently, minus the eight years he has already spent in jail since his arrest in 2008.

This case sets several precedent for international justice. This is the first trial at the ICC to recognize sexual violence as a weapon of war. This is also the first time the ICC has used the doctrine of command responsibility to convict a leader for the crimes of his subordinates.

“The arrest, conviction and sentencing of Jean-Pierre Bemba sends out a strong signal that those who commit crimes under international law will ultimately be held responsible for their crimes,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

“It also sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated and makes clear that military commanders must take all necessary steps to prevent their subordinates from committing such heinous acts. If they fail to do so they [will] be held accountable.”

On April 4, Mr. Bemba’s lawyers said they will appeal the decision, even though the sentence is lower than the 25 years proposed by chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

When explaining her sentence to judges, Mrs. Bensouda said, “A long sentence, proportionate to the gravity of Bemba’s culpability would pursue the objective of deterring other military commanders from committing similar crimes.”

Judge Sylvia Steiner, who presided over the trial and is the first woman to head the ICC, said at a sentencing hearing that any actions Bemba took to stop the commission of crimes were meant only to “rehabilitate the public image” of his group. In March, the Trial Chamber III of the ICC judged that Bemba failed to take reasonable measures to deter or punish the crimes.

The case is also historic for the record number of civilian victims that participated in the proceeding (more than 5,200) and who are eligible for reparations.

“The punishment meted out today can’t turn back the clock, but it can bring a measure of closure to those victims who’ve waited patiently more than a dozen years for this day to come,” Karen Naimer, the director of the Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones Program at Physicians for Human Rights, told The Guardian.

Two other Congolese nationals have been convicted by the court: in 2013, Thomas Lubanga, who forcibly enlisted child soldiers; and in 2014, Germain Katanga, who abetted and aided war crimes and crimes against humanity.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.