The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday overturned the war crimes conviction and 18-year prison sentence of Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, a huge blow to prosecutors that could also impact politics in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Judge Christine Van den Wijngaert said Bemba, once the leader of Congo’s main opposition party, could not be held responsible for crimes carried out by troops under his control in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
In addition, she said trial judges had failed to consider his efforts to stop crimes committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) once he became aware of them, and how difficult it would have been for him to control the troops’ actions from a distance.
“Mr Bemba cannot be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by MLC troops during the Central African Republic operation,” she said, reading the ruling of a 5-judge appeal panel.
Van den Wijngaert said Bemba’s efforts to stop the crimes “extinguished his responsibility in full”.
Bemba’s acquittal is a huge blow for prosecutors, as his conviction was one of the few they had won since the court’s establishment in 2002.
Bemba was the highest ranking politician convicted by the permanent war crimes court, and his case had been seen as establishing a precedent that political and military officials may be held liable for the actions of troops under their command.
Bemba, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had been convicted of murder, rape and pillage for actions of MLC troops he sent to Central African Republic to support that country’s then-president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Bemba was not released immediately on Friday despite his acquittal because he has also been convicted of witness tampering, and an appeals judgement in that case is still pending.
Bemba, the son of a businessman, became rich during years of close association with former Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko. He entered government under current President Joseph Kabila in 2003 as part of a power-sharing deal that ended years of civil war.
Bemba remains a popular figure in western Congo, where his MLC party is one of the largest opposition movements to Kabila, who is due to step down after an election scheduled for December.
According to a nationwide public opinion by New York University’s Congo Research Group in March, Bemba would finish third in a hypothetical presidential race behind two other opposition leaders with 10 percent of the vote.
Has right to return home
Bemba has the right to return home once the ICC releases him, Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Friday, reacting to the verdict.
“There’s not even any question over it,” Mende told Reuters by telephone. “Do you know of any other country where a Congolese citizen is supposed to live? All Congolese are free to live in DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)”.