ICC over­turns Bemba war crimes

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THE HAGUE: In a blow to prose­cu­tors at the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court (ICC) and to vic­tims of rape and mur­der in a con­flict-rav­aged African na­tion, ap­peals judges on Fri­day over­turned the con­vic­tions of for­mer Con­golese vice-pres­i­dent Jean-pierre Bemba for atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by his forces in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic.

The reversal de­liv­ered a se­ri­ous set­back to ICC prose­cu­tors by scrap­ping all the con­vic­tions in the court’s first trial to fo­cus largely on sex­ual vi­o­lence and on com­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity – the le­gal prin­ci­ple that a com­mand­ing of­fi­cer can be held re­spon­si­ble for crimes com­mit­ted by his or her troops or for fail­ing to pre­vent or pun­ish the crimes.

“We find it re­gret­table and trou­bling,” pros­e­cu­tor Fa­tou Ben­souda said. “And I can only re­gret that this ‘sig­nif­i­cant and un­ex­plained de­par­ture’ from the court’s pre­vi­ous ju­rispru­dence, as the dis­sent­ing judges de­scribed it, has taken place in the most se­ri­ous case of sex­ual and gen­der-based vi­o­lence that has been de­cided upon by this court to date.”

The rul­ing could have im­pli­ca­tions for pos­si­ble fu­ture con­vic­tions of com­mand­ing of­fi­cers in other con­flicts.

Bemba’s lawyer, Peter wel­comed the de­ci­sion.

“It’s not some ac­quit­tal on a tech­ni­cal­ity,” he said. “They went to the very heart of a com­man­der’s cul­pa­bil­ity, namely his re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that when put in the knowl­edge of crimes he takes steps to in­ves­ti­gate them and pun­ish them.”

Bemba was the most se­nior sus­pect con­victed by the global court and his 18-year sen­tence was the high­est handed down in the court’s his­tory.

Bemba, wear­ing a suit and tie, showed lit­tle emo­tion as Pre­sid­ing Judge Chris­tine van den Wyn­gaert re­versed his con­vic­tions. Bemba’s sup­port­ers in the packed pub­lic gallery were not so re­served; they cheered, whis­tled and hugged one an­other for so long that Van den Wyn­gaert threat­ened to halt pro­ceed­ings if or­der was not re­stored.

The ap­peals cham­ber, in a 3-2 ma­jor­ity rul­ing, said the trial cham­ber “erred in its eval­u­a­tion of Bemba’s mo­ti­va­tion and the mea­sures that he could have taken in light of the lim­i­ta­tions he faced in in­ves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing crimes as a re­mote com­man­der send­ing troops to a for­eign coun­try.”

The ap­peals cham­ber also said Haynes, Bemba was wrongly con­victed for crimes that were not even in­cluded in the charges against him.

The two judges who dis­agreed wrote a dis­sent­ing opin­ion in which they said the ac­quit­tals were based on “an in­cor­rect stan­dard of ap­pel­late re­view,” the court said.

Bemba was found guilty in 2016 as a mil­i­tary com­man­der of two counts of crimes against hu­man­ity and three counts of war crimes for a cam­paign of mur­der, rape and pil­lag­ing by his troops, known as the Move­ment for the Lib­er­a­tion of Congo, in 2002 and 2003.

He de­nied re­spon­si­bil­ity for the crimes. He was sen­tenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison.

Bemba has been in cus­tody at the ICC for nearly a decade af­ter author­i­ties in Bel­gium ar­rested him there in 2008 and sent him to The Hague.

Van den Wyn­gaert said Bemba would not im­me­di­ately be re­leased be­cause a sep­a­rate panel of ICC judges is still con­sid­er­ing what sen­tence he should be given in a con­vic­tion for in­ter­fer­ing with wit­nesses in his trial. She urged the trial panel to quickly de­cide whether he should be set free.

The court sched­uled a hear­ing for Tues­day to dis­cuss the is­sue. – Ap/african News Agency (ANA)

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