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.

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