13 June 2018

Africa: Bemba's Day in Court and Another Blow for the ICC

analysis

In what was arguably the highest-profile conviction in the International Criminal Court's history, the Congolese rebel-turned-politician had been found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The charges stemmed from atrocities, including rape and murder, committed by troops under his command in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

The original conviction was significant for several reasons - including its emphasis on sexual violence as a war crime and in holding commanders accountable for the actions of the soldiers they command.

However, last week, the Appeals Chamber decided Bemba should not be held responsible for their actions and overturned the earlier decision. Bemba had additionally been found guilty of witness tampering and is awaiting sentencing for that. Because the maximum he can serve for this crime is five years, most of which time he has already served, however, the court ruled this week that he could live with his family while he awaits the sentence.

In overturning the verdict, advocacy groups argued that the judges delivered a "huge blow" for victims of the rampage carried out by Bemba's troops. Experts have warned that it sends a message to other commanders that their troops can act with impunity, so long as they are not explicitly involved in the activities.

It also represents yet another blow for the ICC, which has seen its legitimacy repeatedly challenged in recent years, including when:

A high-profile case against Kenyan political leaders, including current President Uhuru Kenyatta, following post-election violence in 2007 and into 2008, fell apart.

Pretoria thumbed its nose at the ICC when it refused to detain Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir - indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes - when he traveled to South Africa in 2015.

Burundi became the first country to actually drop out of the ICC last year, riding a wave of anti-Court sentiment that has built across the African continent.

Looking ahead, Bemba may soon look to trade his prison cell for a presidential palace. He is widely tipped to run for Congolese president, if scheduled elections actually take place.

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