, THE HAGUE, Oct 19 – Democratic Republic of Congo former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba lost a last-ditch bid on Tuesday to stop his war crimes trial when world court judges dismissed his "abuse of process" appeal.
"The Appeals Chamber confirms the impugned decision and dismisses the appeal," judge Anita Usacka said in The Hague, two-and-a-half years after Bemba was arrested on an International Criminal Court warrant.
The 47-year-old stands accused of three charges of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) from October 2002 to March 2003.
The charges include alleged acts of murder, rape and pillaging by members of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) while helping troops of then CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse resist a coup attempt.
Judges had been awaiting Tuesday\’s ruling before setting a trial date, which an ICC statement said will now be done.
Bemba claimed abuse of process, saying he was being prosecuted for the same crimes twice in conflict with the legal principle of double jeopardy. He had been charged by a senior investigating judge in the CAR in 2003.
That investigation was, however, abandoned in September 2004 on the grounds that Bemba enjoyed diplomatic immunity as vice president of the DR Congo. The Bangui Court of Appeal later upheld the charges and referred the case to the ICC.
ICC judges ruled in June that the 2004 dismissal of charges against Bemba in the CAR did not constitute a formal "decision not to prosecute" that may have brought the issue of double jeopardy into play.
The Appeals Chamber agreed, saying Tuesday: "There is nothing to indicate … that the Trial Chamber erred in its determination."
The judges also dismissed three other grounds of appeal, including Bemba\’s insistence that judges should have allowed him to submit evidence from a CAR legal expert on the criminal processes that had been followed against him in Bangui.
Following his arrest in Brussels, Bemba was transferred to The Hague in July 2008.
The ICC confirmed charges against him in January 2009 and ruled in August that he be released pending the start of his trial.
The prosecution challenged the decision to free Bemba, which was put on ice until December last year when appeals judges determined that he should remain in custody after all.
The start of the trial, initially set for April 27, has been postponed three times — the last time indefinitely in July pending Tuesday\’s ruling.
A business tycoon, Bemba left the DR Congo in 2007 after losing presidential elections held during a political transition that followed the country\’s 1998-2003 civil war.
He had been one of four transitional vice presidents before briefly leading the opposition, but was forced into exile when government forces tried to disarm his private militia in clashes that killed 300 people in March 2007.
Bemba is the most high-profile suspect in the custody of the ICC, which has opened cases into conflicts in four countries: the DR Congo, Sudan, Uganda and the CAR.
The ICC, which started operating in The Hague in 2002, is the world\’s only independent, permanent tribunal with jurisdiction to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.