Mr Bemba was one of the four vice presidents in the transitional government of the DRC, from July 2003 to December 2006. He also led a rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). The MLC was later turned into a political party.
Bemba’s conviction is not in any way connected to the DRC. It was the result of his involvement in a 2002 political crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR). The CAR shares borders with the DRC. In 2002, the then president of the CAR, Ange-Félix Patassé, invited Mr Bemba and his MLC to come to his country, and help him put down a coup attempt by some rebels opposing his rule.
When the conflict ended and Patassé was ousted from power, the new government of the CAR accused Bemba and his MLC fighters of many crimes in the country. The CAR government referred the matter to the ICC. Bemba was arrested near Brussels on May 24, 2016. He was later handed over to the ICC in The Hague for trial.
For four years now, Bemba has been on trial for his crimes. On March 21, 2016 the ICC found that Bemba knew the forces under his effective authority and control were committing or were about to commit the crimes charged, and that he failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress the commission of crimes by his subordinates.
This is the first time the ICC has convicted a suspect based on his role as a military commander. It is also the first time the court has recognized rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.
The New York Times reports that due to pressure from human rights advocates and women’s groups, organized or mass rape is increasingly being recognized and prosecuted as a weapon of war, not as a by-product of it.
It is also said that other international courts, including the United Nations tribunals for war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, have issued convictions for rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.
The panel which convicted Bemba was made of three judges, all women. The judges ruled unanimously that soldiers under Bemba’s command committed many acts of pillaging, rape, and murder against civilians, over a large geographical area during the armed conflict in the CAR from October 2002 to March 2003.
The court also revealed that the soldiers searched house-to-house for remaining rebels, raping civilians, pillaging their belongings, and, on some occasions, killing those who resisted.
According to the ICC’s document announcing the ruling of the court, the judges considered 733 items of evidence, 5724 pages of documents and 77 witnesses. They then took more than a year to deliberate before issuing the conviction. The judges said they took the time necessary to evaluate the totality of the large amount of evidence.
According to international law experts, Mr Bemba could face up to 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence for such crimes. Bemba has only 30 days to appeal his conviction. It is unclear whether he will appeal the conviction or not.
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