War crimes judges will deliver their verdict Monday against former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, blamed for vicious rapes and killings by his private army in neighbouring Central African Republic over a decade ago.
It is the first case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war, and to place the blame for atrocities committed by troops on their military commander, even if Bemba did not order such crimes.
Once a feared rebel leader in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 53-year-old is accused of failing to halt abuses by his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) which he sent into the Central African Republic (CAR) in October 2002 to help put down an attempted coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Some 1,500 Bemba troops allegedly went on a rampage of killings, rapes and pillage in villages in DR Congo’s northern neighbour over the next six months.
The marathon trial, which opened in November 2010, has “undeniably contributed to raising awareness of a destructive effect that the usage of sexual violence as a systematic weapon of war has on women and men,” said FIDH, a worldwide organisation of human rights groups.
By trying the alleged crimes in public the ICC has “helped to break the silence and the stigmatisation of victims of rape,” it added.
Bemba has pleaded not guilty to three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for which prosecutors at the tribunal in The Hague allege he is “criminally responsible as a military commander”.
If found guilty he could face up to 30 in jail — or even a life sentence, if the court set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes, considers that it is “justified by the extreme gravity of the crime”.
– ‘Bemba was in control’ –
Bemba as military commander of the MLC “knew that the troops were committing crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission,” ICC prosecutors have maintained.
“The attack against the civilian population in the CAR was widespread and systematic.”
Bemba’s defence team however has insisted he had no command over his troops in the CAR.
“There is not a single documentary piece of evidence that shows any orders passing from Bemba and going to his troops in the Central African Republic,” defence lawyer Kate Gibson said in her closing argument in November 2014.
She contended that once the troops had crossed the border they were under the control of leaders in the CAR.
Numerous witnesses during the trial testified to a series of brutal murders and rapes by MLC soldiers, sent in to prop up Patasse against his arch-foe Francois Bozize.
Bozize eventually ousted Patasse, who ruled the Central African Republic for a decade, until he in turn was booted out in 2013, sparking further bloodshed.
Aaron Matta, an expert with the Hague Institute for Global Justice, told AFP that a guilty verdict against Bemba could “help improve the security situation and promote peace in the region through deterrence”.
After the events in CAR, Bemba, a wealthy businessman-turned-warlord, went on to become one of four vice presidents in DR Congo President Joseph Kabila’s transitional government.
In 2006, he lost in presidential polls against Kabila. He fled the next year into what he called “forced exile” in Europe after his troops were routed by government forces, and was arrested in Brussels in 2008 and handed over to the ICC.
Bemba and four close associates are also on trial in a second case in which they are accused of bribing witnesses in his main trial.