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DRCongo’s Bemba leaves ICC detention centre following acquittal

Bemba’s supporters celebrate in Kinshasa on June 8 after he was acquitted on appeal © AFP/File / JOHN WESSELS

The Hague, Netherlands, Jun 13 – Democratic Republic of Congo’s former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba has left the detention centre of the International Criminal Court following his acquittal of war crimes after a decade behind bars, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

The former rebel commander turned politician “left the DU (detention unit) yesterday evening,” the former warlord’s lawyer, Peter Haynes, told AFP.

He was acquitted on appeal last Friday in a surprise decision, with the ICC ruling that he could not be held criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

Bemba, 55, had been sentenced unanimously to 18 years in 2016 by ICC trial judges after a decade behind bars following his arrest in Belgium.

Haynes said Bemba plans to return to Brussels to be united with his wife and five children.

A source familiar with the matter said Bemba had left the ICC detention centre but remained under observation by the court pending a green light from the Belgian authorities.

“Mr Bemba will remain within the ICC’s sphere until he is released into the care of a state willing to accept him,” most probably Belgium, the source told AFP.

– ‘Political ambitions’ –

Bemba’s application for a Belgian residence permit was being examined in Brussels by the office of the state secretary for asylum and migration, Theo Francken, the source said.

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“A meeting is under way,” said Jean-Jacques Mbungani, the national secretary of Bemba’s political party, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC).

The green light from the authorities was expected later Wednesday or Thursday at the latest.

Bemba’s “country of preference is Belgium. That’s where he wants to stay while waiting to prepare his return to the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Mbungani said.

Bemba’s wife and children are apparently living in a villa in the suburb of Rhode-Saint-Genese, some 15 kilometres south of Brussels, where he was originally arrested in May 2008 at the ICC’s request.

Late Tuesday, after the ICC had ordered Bemba’s interim conditional release, his lawyer Haynes said that diplomatic arrangements would have to be made before he could leave the country.

But the ICC judges allowed Bemba to leave the detention unit only if he adhered to strict requirements.

These included “surrendering himself immediately to relevant authorities” if asked by the court, refraining from making public statements on the case, not changing his address without prior notice and not contacting any witnesses.

The judges said he had retroactively served “80 percent of the maximum possible sentence” therefore it was “disproportionate to further detain Mr Bemba merely to ensure his appearance for sentencing.”

The 18-year sentence was the longest ever to be handed down by The Hague-based court.

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Judges had initially found Bemba — nicknamed “Miniature Mobutu” — guilty on five counts of warcrimes and crimes against humanity committed by his private army during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring CAR.

Bemba had sent his militia, the MLC — a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation — into the DRCongo’s northern neighbour in October 2002 to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.

Bemba had unsuccessfully opposed President Joseph Kabila in elections in 2006. After his militia clashed violently with government forces in 2007, he was forced out of the DRC but retains a groundswell of support.

Asked whether Bemba had future political plans, Haynes said: “He’s never given up on his political ambitions.”

“His attitude to his current (situation) is very much to take it one step at a time.”

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