The Bemba trial: let’s let the judges decide
By Desiré Remy Imenda
In this blog, Desiré Remy Imenda responds to supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba who think the penalty sought against the former vice president is far too heavy. The leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) has been convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He faces a possible sentence of 25 years imprisonment.
It’s easy to understand the sympathies of Bemba’s supporters. Yet, he was already found guilty in March. And the crimes are serious: looting, but also rape and murder in the Central African Republic (CAR) between 2002 and 2003. These crimes were committed by forces belonging to his MLC who had been sent to back Ange-Félix Patissé, the CAR president. In law, this is what they refer to as ‘command responsibility’.
The fact that Patissé, who appealed for Bemba’s support, is not facing charges does not let Bemba off the hook. You can ask the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor why it’s not pressing charges against the former Central African president. Fatou Bensouda or one of her assistants would undoubtedly answer that they don’t have enough solid evidence to formally charge him.
Bemba exercised effective control over his forces
But, the prosecution managed to present proof of Bemba’s crimes, both during the confirmation of charges phase as well as during the trial itself. At each stage of the proceedings, Bemba had his own team of lawyers. Bensouda and her team managed to convince the ICC judges that, despite the huge distance between his general headquarters in the Equateur province and the capital of the Central African Republic, the MLC leader had exercised effective control over the troops deployed on the other side of the river. The Congolese politician’s lawyers failed to prove the contrary: that the MLC forces which had been sent to support Patissé were under the command of the Central African Republic. That was the ICC judges’ ruling in March when they firmly rejected Bemba’s arguments. So that’s where things stand now.
It’s up to the judges to decide
But, did the Office of the Prosecutor asked for an overly heavy sentence? There again, it’s up to the judges to decide. They carefully listened to the arguments of both sides: the prosecution asked for a sentence of at least 25 years, while the defence pleaded for clemency and for the lightest possible sentence.
Let’s await the final ruling. In any case, even when the trial chamber judges issue their ruling, Bemba still has the right to appeal the verdict and the sentence. The proceedings could go on for several more months or even years.
Not taking sides
When it comes to domestic Congolese politics, I obviously don’t want to support one side or the other for the simple reason that I am not Congolese. But allow me to ask one question: should the international community have ignored the MLC’s crimes in Bangui to prevent Congolese President Joseph Kabila, a young dictator whom I despise, from having to face an opponent of his own stature? In other words, are Kabila’s victims, who I fully support, more important than the Central African victims of the MLC?
This article was first published in French on Waza Afrique on 22 April 2016. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.