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Congo ex-warlord’s sentence for witness bribes upheld

ICC appeals judges, however, then ruled that the sentences of up to two-and-half years were too low and sent the case back for re-sentencing/FILE

THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Sep 17 – The International Criminal Court on Monday upheld former Congolese vice-president and warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba’s one-year sentence for bribing witnesses in a case that led to him being barred for running for president.

Bemba, a key rival to President Joseph Kabila, was acquitted on appeal for war crimes and crimes against humanity in June in a shock verdict that saw him freed from more than a decade behind bars in The Hague.

But the witness tampering case continues to hamper Bemba’s political ambitions, and while Monday’s decision not to impose a higher sentence means he has now served all his time behind bars, it nevertheless leaves him banned from standing in long-delayed elections in December.

“The chamber sentences Mr Bemba to a total of 12 months of imprisonment. After deduction of time he previously spent in detention the chamber considers his time of imprisonment as served,” judge Bertram Schmitt said, and re-imposed a 300,000-euro ($350,000) fine on Bemba.

The businessman-turned-rebel leader, 55, received exactly the same sentence in March when he and five co-accused were found guilty on appeal of bribery, corruption and of coaching 14 defence witnesses in the main trial.

ICC appeals judges, however, then ruled that the sentences of up to two-and-half years were too low and sent the case back for re-sentencing.

Prosecutors had called for a maximum five years to be imposed on Bemba, his lawyer Aime Kilolo and his legal case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda.

But on Monday, judge Schmitt said: “Maximum prison sentences are not necessary” in this case.

“The chamber considers that the penalties it imposes during re-sentencing are proportionate, relative to the seriousness of the offences in this case,” the judge said.

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There was no immediate reaction from Bemba, who was not in court for the decision.

– ‘Miniature Mobutu’ –

The bribery case has continued to haunt a man sometimes referred to as a “miniature-Mobutu”, in reference to the former Zaire’s long-time ruler who was ousted in 1997.

Bemba had high hopes of a political comeback when in June a sharply divided five-judge ICC bench overturned his 2016 conviction and 18-year jail term for murders, rapes and pillaging committed by his private army in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

He was provisionally freed by the ICC pending his sentencing in the corruption case and declared his candidacy after making a triumphant return home last month, with tens of thousands of supporters turning out to greet him.

But in response to the corruption conviction, the Congolese Constitutional Court ruled that Bemba was ineligible to run in presidential polls on December 23.

It later rejected an appeal by the thick-set and imposing Bemba, who denounced the elections as a “parody”.

In an interview published in the magazine Jeune Afrique on Monday, Bemba said that if the elections were democratic and the opposition united behind one candidate, he would support that person and “make them win”.

The former Belgian colony has not seen a peaceful transition of power since 1960.

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But Kabila, who has held office since 2001, has said he will not run again.

Some experts fear the current crisis may spiral into bloodshed.

Kabila, who took over in 2001 after his father Laurent-Desire Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard, is an arch-foe of Bemba.

Kabila’s tenure over the vast mineral-rich country has been marked by a reputation for corruption, inequality and unrest.

Bemba lost presidential elections to Kabila in 2006 and was later accused of treason when his bodyguards clashed with the army in Kinshasa.

In 2007, he fled to Belgium, where he had spent part of his youth, before he was arrested on an ICC warrant and transferred to the court.

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