International Criminal Court appeals judges overturned on Friday the convictions of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba for atrocities committed by his forces in the Central African Republic.

Former DR Congo leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo waits in a court room of the ICC, March 21, 2016.
Former DR Congo leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo waits in a court room of the ICC, March 21, 2016. (AFP Archive)

International war crimes judges on Friday acquitted former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba on appeal, overturning an 18-year sentence for war crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR).

“Mr Bemba cannot be held criminally liable for the crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic,” presiding judge Christine Van den Wyngaert told the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“The Appeals Chamber in this instant reverses the conviction against Mr Bemba ... and in relation to the remaining criminal acts it enters an acquittal,” Van den Wyngaert said.

In 2016, the ICC’s judges unanimously found Bemba guilty on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for abuses committed by his troops during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring CAR.

Bemba had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), into the CAR in October 2002 to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.

At his sentencing in 2016, trial judges blamed Bemba for failing to stop a series of “sadistic and cruel” rapes and murders as well as pillaging by his soldiers.

The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war.

It was also the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.

But in a scathing assessment, the Hague-based ICC’s appeal judges said Bemba was “erroneously” convicted for specific criminal acts.

Trial judges were also wrong in their finding that Bemba could in fact prevent crimes being committed by his MLC troops, they determined.

“The trial chamber ignored significant testimonial evidence that Mr Bemba’s ability to investigate and punish crimes in the CAR was limited,” Judge Van den Wyngaert said.

Bemba however remains behind bars in a separate case in which he was sentenced to one year in jail for bribing witnesses during his main war crimes trial.

Bemba lost an appeal against that sentence, but the ICC still has to decide whether a new jail term will be imposed.

Judges are to decide “shortly whether Mr Bemba’s continued detention is warranted,” Van den Wyngaert said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies