ICC Ruling: Former Congolese Vice President Gets 18 Year Prison Term for War Crimes and Sexual Violence


The International Criminal Court (ICC) has finally sentenced the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in prison for rape, murder and pillaging.

Bemba was one of the four vice presidents in the transitional government of the DRC, from July 2003 to December 2006. He led a rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). The MLC was later turned into a political party.

Bemba was first convicted for the crimes by the ICC in March. Bemba’s conviction and sentence 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 Bemba and his MLC to come to his country, and help him put down a coup attempt by some rebels opposing his rule.

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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, 2008. 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 committing of the crimes by his subordinates.

Observers say this is the first time the ICC has convicted a suspect based on his role as a military commander, meaning he did not commit the crimes personally.  It is also the first time the court has recognized rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

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UN News reports that Bemba was sentenced to the following terms of imprisonment: 16 years of imprisonment for murder as a war crime; 16 years of imprisonment for murder as a crime against humanity; 18 years of imprisonment for rape as a war crime; 18 years of imprisonment for rape as a crime against humanity; and 16 years of imprisonment for pillaging as a war crime.

However, the court considered that the highest sentence imposed, which is 18 years for rape, reflected the totality of Bemba’s culpability, and decided that the sentences imposed should run concurrently.

Also, the entire time Bemba has spent in detention in accordance with an order of the ICC, since 24 May 2008, will be deducted from his sentence.

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Passing the sentence against Bemba, the presiding, Judge Sylvia Steiner from Brazil said Bemba had failed to exercise control over his private militia sent into CAR, where they carried out “sadistic” rapes, murders and pillaging of “particular cruelty.”

According to the ICC’s document on the case published in March 2016, 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.

Bemba’s defense attorney, Kate Gibson told AFP news agency that her client is disappointed with the ruling, and that they will appeal against the sentence. She said “Today’s sentence is by no means the end of the road for Mr Bemba; it merely signals that we are now moving to the next phase of the process which is the appeal.”

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Meanwhile, human rights groups have welcomed the ruling. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the sentence offered a measure of justice for the victims. HRW’s International Justice Advocacy Director, Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner was quoted as saying: “Other commanders should take notice that they, too, can be held accountable for rapes and other serious abuses committed by troops under their control.”

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