Former Congolese rebel warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba appears before the global war crimes court in the Hague. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Jean-Pierre Bemba Decision: Landmark Judgment at the ICC

Former Congolese rebel warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba appears before the global war crimes court in the Hague. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Dr. Aaron Matta is a Senior Researcher within the Rule of Law Program at the Hague Institute who previously worked in the Prosecution Team in the Bemba trial; Ms. Anca Iordache is an intern within the Rule of Law Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

Yesterday 21 March, Trial Chamber III (TCIII) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down its verdict in the Prosecutor v. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo case, which has been ongoing since November 2010.

In a landmark verdict, the TCIII found beyond reasonable doubt that Bemba, a former vice president and commander-in-chief of the Movement for Liberation of Congo (MLC), was criminally responsible under Article 28(a) of the Rome Statute of the ICC for the crimes against humanity of murder and rape, and the war crimes of murder, rape, and pillaging committed by his forces in the course of an non-international armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) during 2002 and 2003. Bemba is the highest-ranked individual to have been convicted by the Court to date.

At the time of the conflict, Bemba deployed his troops from the DRC to the neighboring CAR to support the then president Ange-Félix Patassé to beat back a coup attempt of François Bozizé. Later, in January 2005, the CAR government under Bozizé referred the situation to the ICC. Throughout the trial, Bemba denied all charges against him claiming that in fact it was former CAR president Patassé who had actual command and control over MLC troops.

Along with this being only the fourth case to reach the judgment phase at the ICC, other significant milestones are noteworthy. First, the case against Bemba was the first time in the history of modern international criminal justice that acts of sexual violence far outnumbered alleged killings. During the conflict, crimes of sexual violence against women, men and children were used as a “tool” by Bemba’s troops to terrorize the civilian population in the CAR. No such crimes were sought for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, Germain Katanga was acquitted for all sexual violence charges, and Ngudjolo Chui was acquitted of all crimes charged. In this new verdict the TCIII changed the record and marked an important milestone in punishing sexual and gender-based crimes at the ICC.

Second, the verdict set another important jurisprudential precedent at the ICC as it was the first time that the Court addressed the liability of an accused under the command responsibility doctrine provided for in Article 28 of the Rome Statute. Initially, Bemba was charged under Article 25 of the Rome Statute as a co-perpetrator who was criminally responsible as an individual, but later in the process, the Pre-Trial Chamber II required the Office of the Prosecutor to amend the indictment. The TCIII concluded that Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was in the position of a military commander who exercised effective command and control over MLC forces knowing they were committing or about to commit crimes, and that he had failed to “exercise control properly” over the MLC troops. Moreover, the judges found that Bemba failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress the commission of the crimes or to submit the matter to competent authorities for investigation and prosecution. It is interesting also to note that more than 5,000 victims participated in the proceedings, which is the highest number of victims in any of the cases before the ICC to date.

Finally, a second ICC trial is currently pending against Bemba and another four associates (Bemba et al.) concerning allegations of witness tampering. All defendants have been charged with offenses to the administration of justice under Article 70 of the Rome Statute. The case is important because evidence may have implications for the credibility of witnesses in the main Bemba trial, demonstrating the complexity of litigating parallel cases before the Court. However, judges in the main trial did not allow evidence from the second case against Mr. Bemba into the record, citing potential fair trial issues.

The landmark judgement definitely strengthens the ICC’s credibility throughout the African continent, where it has been accused often of bias and politicization. Bemba is expected to appeal his conviction, a process which could take several more years. At the time being, the accused will be held in custody pending sentencing at a later date.

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