By Thomas Escritt
Congo’s Jean-Pierre Bemba became the highest-ranking politician to be convicted by the international war crimes court on Monday, when it judged him responsible for a 2002-2003 campaign of rape and murder in Central African Republic.
Bemba, who served as vice president from 2003 to 2006, failed to discipline or restrain his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers as they rampaged through the neighbouring country, the International Criminal Court’s presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner, said.
The case is the first in which the ICC has found a high official directly responsible for the crimes of his subordinates, as well as the first to focus primarily on crimes of sexual violence committed in war.
“MLC soldiers by force knowingly and intentionally invaded the bodies of the victims by penetrating the victims’ anuses, vaginas or other bodily openings with their penises,” said Steiner, reading from an unusually graphic judgement.
United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein welcomed the verdict as a step towards eradicating “the horrendous sexual crimes which have blighted the lives of so many women.”
Steiner ordered that Bemba be held in custody pending sentencing at a later date.
Dressed in a suit and a maroon tie, he at times shook his head vigorously as Steiner read through the litany of charges, and he is expected to appeal his conviction. That process could take several years.
Though Bemba had punished some low-ranking soldiers for crimes and ordered inquiries into allegations of misconduct, which included raping girls aged as young as 10, these attempts were half-hearted at best, judges said.
MLC soldiers had pillaged to supplement their meagre wages during the intervention in support of Central African Republic’s then-president Ange-Felix Patasse, who was eventually deposed by rebels led by his successor, Francois Bozize.
Bemba’s supporters reacted indignantly to the verdict.
“He did something about this, but they said it wasn’t enough,” said Eve Bazaiba, secretary-general of the MLC’s political wing, outside the courtroom. “How could he do enough? He was just one person!”
The son of a businessman who became rich during years of close association with former Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Bemba founded and helped finance the MLC, originally a rebel force in north-west Congo.
He entered government under current president Joseph Kabila.