Initially sentenced to 18 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the CAR, the former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal this Friday, June 8.
The majority of the ICC’s appellate judges decided to overturn the decision of the Court of First Instance after finding serious errors in the judgment.
The relatives of Jean-Pierre Bemba gathered before the International Criminal Court to welcomed the verdict by an explosion of joy.
The supporters of the former Congolese vice-president were numerous in the ICC’s public gallery and the announcement clearly surprised them, said by special correspondent in The Hague, Sonia Rolley.
Just before the hearing, Eve Bazaiba, the secretary general of the Mouvement de liberation du Congo (MLC), the opposition party of Jean-Pierre Memba, said above all that he hoped to be released, given that he had already passed ten years in prison.
Although it is known that ICC judges have always been fussy about the procedures, the verdict is dramatic. From the first minutes of the judgment, however, one could read on the face of the representatives of the prosecutor’s office some anxiety.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, himself, showed no reaction to the announcement of the judgment, not even a smile.
Serious errors in first instance
For three of the five judges of the Court of Appeal, serious errors were made by the Trial Chamber. It should not have taken into account crimes that were not mentioned in the notification of charges.
The Appeals Chamber considers above all that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s criminal responsibility is not irrefutably established and that the trial judges should have taken into account extenuating circumstances, such as the fact that the former Congolese Vice-President wrote to the Central African Prime Minister at the time to ask him to act or that he did not have all the means of investigation in the Central African Republic to know what was happening or even to punish those responsible.
The decision of three out of five judges is enough to get him acquitted, but not to have him released immediately. As recalled by the President of the Court, Jean-Pierre Bemba is sued in a second case for bribing 14 witnesses. He had been sentenced to one year in prison at first instance, the appeal is pending.
Thirteen years of judicial twists
The acquittal of the former vice-president and rebel leader comes 15 years after the crimes committed by his men between 2002 and 2003 in the Central African Republic. Since then, the case has seen many legal twists.
In November 2005, the Central African government of Francois Bozize asked the International Criminal Court to refer to these war crimes committed by the militia led by Jean-Pierre Bemba. The Central African authorities believe that only the international court has the means to carry out investigations. The investigation began in 2007 under the auspices of the ICC prosecutor.
After the investigations and several NGO reports, the man is subject to an international arrest warrant. The former vice president is finally arrested in Belgium in May 2008 where he took refuge after the post-election crisis of 2006-2007 in the DRC. He is remanded in The Hague.
The trial starts in 2010. Seventy-seven witnesses are heard. The Court questions the level of responsibility the man had in 2002 over his militias. Jean-Pierre Bemba is found guilty in 2016 of two counts of crimes against humanity “murder and rape” and three counts of war crimes murder, rape again and looting.
A judgment annulled tonight by the ICC.