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Congolese warlord faces verdict in war crimes appeal

Bemba, seen here in 2009, is serving an 18-year term for war crimes and crimes against humanity © ANP/AFP/File / ED OUDENAARDEN

The Hague, Netherlands, Jun 8 – Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba on Friday will hear the outcome of an appeal against his landmark conviction and 18-year sentence for war crimes committed by his private army in Central African Republic (CAR).

After a six-year trial, judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2016 unanimously found Bemba guilty on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The case saw the heavy-set, imposing former leader — nicknamed “Miniature Mobutu” — convicted for his role in a five-month reign of terror.

Bemba sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), into neighbouring CAR in October 2002 to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Felix Patasse.

He failed to stop a series of “sadistic and cruel” rapes and murders as well as pillaging by his soldiers, the judges said.

He “directed a widespread attack against the civilian population,” they said. “Entire families were victimised.”

Bemba knew the crimes were being committed but “failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures” to stop or prevent them, according to their ruling.

The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war.

It was also the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.

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At an appeal hearing Bemba’s lawyers argued that he did not maintain effective control over his troops because there was no physical evidence that he gave any orders nor that he was present on the ground.

They also asked the judges to lower his sentence, given that he has already spent close to a decade behind bars at the ICC’s detention centre in The Hague. His sentence is the longest of any individual convicted by the ICC so far.

Prosecutors however also appealed, asking judges to increase Bemba’s sentence to 25 years as it “did not reflect the gravity” of all the crimes.

A wealthy businessman, Bemba was once a towering figure in business and politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). His family was close to that of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

But when Mobutu was ousted in 1997 by late rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, Bemba fled into the bush and built up his militia, opposed to the Kabila regime.

A 1998-2003 war drew foreign armies on rival sides into the vast central African nation with fabulous mineral wealth.

After the Congolese war ended, Bemba laid down his arms and was awarded in 2003 one of four vice-presidential posts shared out among wartime rivals in a transitional government.

In 2006, he lost a presidential run-off against young Joseph Kabila, son of the late leader. He was captured and transferred to the court while living in exile in Brussels in July 2008.

In a separate trial, Bemba was sentenced in March 2017 to one year in jail and fined 300,000 euros ($350,000) for bribing witnesses during his main war crimes trial.

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He lost a separate appeal against that bribery conviction.

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