On March 31, former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba will know whether judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) convict or acquit him of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
According to a scheduling order by the court, Trial Chamber III, comprised of Judge Sylvia Steiner (Presiding), Judge Joyce Aluoch, and Judge Kuniko Ozaki will deliver its judgment at 14:00, in open court.
Bemba has been in the court's detention since July 2008. His trial over the murder, pillaging, and rape allegedly committed by his troops during 2002 and 2003 opened in November 2010. Whereas Bemba did not directly commit these crimes, prosecutors say he is culpable because, as commander-in-chief of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), he knew that his troops were committing crimes but "did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission."
The alleged crimes were committed during a conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). Bemba, 53, deployed his troops to the neighboring country to help its then president Ange-Félix Patassé beat back a coup attempt. At the time, the MLC was a Uganda-backed rebel force fighting to topple the Congolese government.
In closing oral remarks at the court in November 2014, defense lawyer Peter Haynes said the prosecution's evidence was "selective, narrow," and "unfair" and added that if Bemba is convicted, countries would find it difficult to offer military assistance to others however righteous the cause might be.
Throughout the trial, the defense argued that perpetrators of the crimes were not Bemba's soldiers, and that while the MLC troops were in the CAR, they were under the command of Central African forces. Furthermore, the defense claimed that once Bemba heard of crimes being committed by his fighters, he constituted a commission of inquiry and all implicated soldiers were tried. Those found guilty served their full sentences.
However, the prosecution said those trials were a sham intended to hoodwink the international community. Moreover, the prosecution rejected defense claims that Bemba was not in direct contact with his troops deployed in the neighbouring country, arguing that he had the means to directly communicate with them, and that he received situation reports from commanders in the conflict country. The prosecution also argues that MLC troops conducted their own operations in the CAR, and that many witnesses positively identified the perpetrators of the crimes as soldiers from Bemba's group.
Last September, a separate trial for Bemba and four associates opened at the ICC. The five are accused of offences against the administration of justice. They allegedly illegally influenced witnesses by giving them money and instructions to provide false testimony, all perpetrated in various ways including by committing, soliciting, inducing, aiding, abetting, or otherwise assisting in their commission.
These charges were laid against Bemba and his defense lawyers Aimé Kilolo Musamba and Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, as well as defense witness Narcisse Arido and Congolese parliamentarian Fidèle Babala Wandu in November 2013.
All of Bemba's co-accused are out on bail, which they secured in October 2014 after detention of eleven months. If Bemba gets acquitted on March 31, he would be free to leave the detention center as the witness tampering trial goes on. However, the prosecution could appeal the conviction and release pending determination of the appeal. The prosecution has consistently opposed Bemba's interim release from detention, arguing that he is a flight risk because of his wealth and connections, and that he could harm witnesses and their families.
Judges granted 5,229 persons the status of victims authorized to participate in the proceedings.