The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, guilty of war crimes.
The ruling makes him “the highest-ranking politician convicted by the” ICC.
The ICC found Bemba did not do enough to stop his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) “from killing and raping people in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002 and 2003.” The court has never recognized rape as a war crime until Bemba’s case.
Media reported Bemba “showed no emotion as Judge Sylvia Steiner read out” all of the crimes committed by the MLC. Bemba sent his militia to CAR to support then-President Ange-Feliz Patasse against his rebels. From the Associated Press:
Steiner said women, girls and men were targeted by Bemba’s forces, often with multiple soldiers raping women and girls in front of other family members.
In one incident, a man’s wife was gang raped and when he protested he, too, was raped at gunpoint.
“Entire families were victimized,” Steiner said. “Victims included the elderly, men, women and children.”
One account included soldiers raping “a man, his wife, his daughters and his granddaughter.” They raped girls as young as 10 years old.
“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,” she continued.
Steiner also lashed out at Bemba for his “grossly inadequate” actions to prevent these crimes or punish those responsible. Despite his crimes, he remains popular in the Congo. His supporters hope the jail will release him in time to run in the next presidential election at the end of the year.
“He did something about this, but they said it wasn’t enough,” exclaimed Eve Bazaiba, secretary-general of the MLC outside the courtroom. “How could he do enough? He was just one person!”
Bemba’s lawyers tried to convince the ICC that the militia left his responsibility once they crossed over to CAR.
The verdict brought hope that they can prosecute others responsible for war sex crimes.
“While the reality of the crimes is appalling, the significance of this decision is to be celebrated,” declared ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. “What this decision affirms is that commanders are responsible for the acts of the forces under their control.”
“This first guilty verdict at the ICC for sexual violence shines a spotlight on the use of rape as a weapon of war,” stated Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “There is still a profound need for justice for these crimes and other atrocities in both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ICC prosecutor should bring further cases against those who bear responsibility for the gravest crimes in these countries.”