The Hague (Reuters) – The International Criminal Court on Friday overturned the war crimes conviction of former Democratic Republic of Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, a huge blow to prosecutors that could also impact politics in his home country.
Bemba was one of only four people convicted by the permanent war crimes court in its 16 years of operation, and the highest ranking among them. He had been convicted of murder, rape and pillage for actions by fighters he sent to Central African Republic to back CAR’s then-president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Judge Christine Van den Wijngaert said Bemba, once the leader of Congo’s main opposition party, could not be held responsible for crimes carried out by troops under his control in CAR in 2002-2003.
Dismissing his 18-year-sentence, she said trial judges had failed to consider his efforts to stop crimes committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) once he became aware of them, and how difficult it would have been for him to control the troops’ actions from a distance.
“Mr Bemba cannot be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by MLC troops during the Central African Republic operation,” she said, reading the ruling of a 5-judge appeal panel. Bemba’s efforts to stop the crimes “extinguished his responsibility in full”, she said.
His acquittal will have implications in Congo, where he remains a popular figure in the west of the country. His MLC party is one of the largest opposition movements to President Joseph Kabila, who is due to step down after an election scheduled for December.
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called the decision “regrettable and troubling.”
She noted that judges did not deny Bemba’s troops had committed atrocities “which resulted in great suffering in the Central African Republic.”
“The carnage and suffering caused by those crimes are very real and they are recognised,” she told journalists.
Fiona McKay of the Open Society Justice Initiative said the decision was a “major blow” to Bensouda’s office “given the vast resources that have been devoted to this case, which has lasted for more than 10 years.”
“This was the first ICC case with a major focus on the use of rape as a weapon of war”, she said.
Bemba’s case had been seen as cementing the precedent that political and military officials may be held liable for the actions of troops under their command.
He was not released immediately on Friday despite his acquittal because he has also been convicted of witness tampering, and an appeals judgment in that case is still pending.
The court called a status conference in his case for June 12, which Bemba’s lawyer called “unacceptable”, given that the maximum sentence Bemba could receive on that charge is 5 years and he has already spent 10 years in detention.
He said Bemba would probably go to Belgium to meet with his family there before returning to Congo after he is released.
Bemba, the son of a businessman, became rich during years of close association with former Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko. He entered government with Kabila in 2003 as part of a power-sharing deal that ended years of civil war.
According to a nationwide public opinion survey by New York University’s Congo Research Group in March, despite being absent for a decade, Bemba would finish third in a hypothetical presidential race behind two other opposition leaders with 10 percent of the vote.
Karine Bonneau of the International Federation for Human Rights said the decision was devastating for an estimated 5,000 victims of troops under Bemba who were awaiting the ruling.
The message “to warlords seems to be: when you’re not at the scene, let your troops commit the worst crimes and worst abominations, then say you had nothing to do with it, and we won’t condemn you.”
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, Toby Sterling and Bart Meijer; Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Robin Pomeroy