by Jan HENNOP The International Criminal Court will Tuesday hand down its sentence against former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba convicted of a slew of rapes and murders in Central African Republic over a decade ago.
The highest-ranking official to date to be sentenced, Bemba will face a three-judge bench at a public hearing at 1:45 pm (1145 GMT) at the court’s headquarters in The Hague.
Bemba, 53, was found guilty in March of five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his private army called the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), which he sent to neighbouring CAR from October 2002 to March 2003 to put down a coup.
Prosecutors at the ICC have called for a minimum 25-year jail term in the landmark case, the first to focus on rape as a weapon of war by the ICC, which was set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes.
But just hours before the sentencing, Bemba’s defence team gave notice late Monday that he would appeal his conviction.
“The appeal will not be limited… to criticism of the trial chamber’s findings, but will also allege that in material respects the whole trial process was flawed and unfair and that Mr Bemba’s rights as an accused were violated throughout,” defence lawyer Peter Haynes said in a filing to the court.
“No reasonable trial chamber could have convicted him of the charges he faced,” Haynes argued.
The trial judges erred because they had “misinterpreted and/or misapplied the law and took an unjustifiable approach to the evidence,” he added, arguing that “there was a mistrial.”
The judges found in their March 21 verdict that the former Congolese vice president turned a blind eye to a reign of terror by some 1,500 of his troops, sent to the CAR to prop up then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Despite knowing what was happening, Bemba “failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent” a litany of crimes, which included the gang rapes of men, women and children, sometimes as their relatives were forced to watch, the judges said.
As well as the issue of rape as a weapon of war, the Bemba case is also the first at the ICC to focus on a military commander’s responsibility for abuses by his troops, even if he did not order them.
Defence lawyers however say Bemba, who has already spent eight years in detention since his 2008 arrest in Brussels, should be released.
Haynes said Monday that Bemba was “convicted of a case in which in material respects he was ignorant” and that the former leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo was “not liable as a superior for the actions of the MLC” in CAR.
– Call for stiff jail term -In different cases, the ICC has previously sentenced two other Congolese warlords to 14 and 12 years in prison.
Activists warn however that handing down a light sentence against Bemba would fail to send a warning to other military commanders.
The landmark Bemba conviction was hailed at the time, even though many were shocked at how long it had taken for sexual violence to be focused on in an international trial.
American actress Angelina Jolie urged the international community “to build on the important legal precedent” set by the Bemba case so that “we can collectively shatter impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and terrorism”.
© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved