Former Congolese vice-president and ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has been jailed for 18 years following a landmark conviction at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and sexual violence becoming the highest level official to be handed down a sentence at the international criminal court.
Bemba was found guilty in March of crimes committed in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002 and 2003. However analysts say the judgment will also highlight the failure of the court to punish anyone for the widespread and systematic human rights abuses committed by militia in Congo itself, particularly during the years of the civil war from 1998 to 2002.
He was accused of failing to stop his rebels from killing and raping people. Bemba’s defence team have already said they will appeal against the decision.
Passing sentence at the ICC in The Hague, Judge Sylvia Steiner said Bemba had failed to exercise control over his private militia group sent into CAR, where they carried out “sadistic” rapes, murders and pillaging of “particular cruelty”. The Hague says the eight years Bemba has already spent in custody will be deducted from his sentence.
The court heard that his troops committed acts of extreme violence against civilians, crimes which the judge said Jean-Pierre Bemba was made aware of but did nothing to stop. Bemba’s conviction was the first time the ICC has focused on rape as a weapon of war, and the first time a suspect had been convicted over crimes committed by others under his command.
He had led the MLC rebel group during DR Congo’s brutal civil war and after a 2003 peace deal he laid down his arms and joined an interim government, becoming vice-president. In 2006 he lost in a run-off election to President Joseph Kabila but gets most votes in western DR Congo, including Kinshasa, flee to Belgium after clashes in Kinshasa in 2007 and arrested in Brussels and handed over to ICC in 2008. Jean-Pierre Bemba trials began in 2010 and was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2016.