World News

International Court Throws Out War Crimes Conviction of Congolese Politician

Posted June 9, 2018 10:34 p.m. EDT
Updated June 9, 2018 10:36 p.m. EDT

PARIS — Appeals judges in an international court have thrown out the war-crimes conviction and 18-year prison sentence for Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a blow to prosecutors, who had accused him of condoning the public rape of women and men, the killing of unarmed villagers and the pillaging of property.

The ruling, announced Friday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, did not question that the atrocities occurred during a five-month rampage by a militia that Bemba founded and financed in 2002 to assist his ally, then the president of the neighboring Central African Republic.

But in a 3-2 vote, the court found that the trial judges had made a series of legal errors. As a “remote commander,” the court said, Bemba would have difficulty knowing what his 1,000-fighter militia was doing and to adequately investigate and stop any crimes.

The overturned conviction came as a shock to prosecutors and other court officials. The chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, called the acquittal “regrettable and troubling.” She noted the judges had not denied that Bemba’s troops had committed atrocities “which resulted in great suffering in the Central African Republic.”

A large group of Bemba’s relatives and supporters burst into cheers in court when the verdict was read, and in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, his followers celebrated.

Arrested in Belgium in 2008, Bemba had been the highest-ranking politician to be convicted by the court. His 2016 conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity was seen as a milestone, showing that politicians and military officials can be held liable even for irregular forces and mercenaries outside their homeland.

The trial judges had also included the use of rape as a weapon of war, a first for this court.

While Bemba was imprisoned in The Hague, investigators made considerable efforts to track down his reported fortune in case damages were awarded to the victims. The court froze several Bemba family bank accounts in Belgium and Cape Verde, along with some properties. But investigators said they also ran into a wall of shell companies they could not get through.

The appeals judges seemed to have wrestled with the case, with all writing separate opinions. The presiding judge, Christine Van den Wijngaert of Belgium, reading out the summary, said the trial judges had “ignored significant evidence that Mr. Bemba’s ability to investigate and punish crimes” by the fighters of his Movement for the Liberation of Congo was limited. The appeals judges said the trial judges had made other errors in attributing crimes to him that had not been formally charged.

But the two dissenting judges wrote that the majority had used the wrong standards for review and that its findings were, therefore, deeply flawed.

Bemba, once the leader of Congo’s opposition, is expected to return to politics once released. But it was not yet clear when he could return home.

In a separate case, he was convicted of coaching and bribing witnesses to give false testimony during his trial and is waiting for a decision on that sentence. Two of his defense lawyers and two of his associates were also found guilty. Prosecutors used telephone taps, email intercepts and records of money transfers as evidence.

The sentence for witness tampering, however, is not likely to exceed the time already served by Bemba. He has been jailed in The Hague for 10 years.

Details of how the coaching of witnesses and bribery took place remained confidential because most of the witnesses at the bribery trial had testified behind closed doors.

But the ruling offered a few examples: In one instance, a lawyer called a witness on the eve of his testimony with instructions, but also cautioned the witness, “No one called you; no one from the defense called you.” Lawyers also told witnesses to lie about payments they had received, the summary said.

Some of the witnesses who had never been in the military were issued ranks and insignia, according to the summary, and some were promised a new life in Europe.