Supporters of convicted war criminal Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo believe a triumphant return to Congolese politics is still on the cards for him. This despite the 18-year sentence handed down on him by Trial Chamber III judges on Tuesday and the possibility that he might get more years tacked on to his jail term if the witness tampering case against him at the ICC doesn’t conclude in his favour.
Marie Louise Efekele still can’t bring herself to accept how it all went down at the ICC on Tuesday afternoon. She was among several representatives of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), the former militia group that has now styled itself into a political outfit, that were present at the Court to see their party leader sentenced to 18 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by troops under his command in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. She said she was deeply disappointed in the sentence and the trial.
“I’m in shock”, she said. “The judges did not consider the defence arguments. They didn’t listen to both sides”, she groused.
“How could they say Bemba was responsible?” she asked. “He couldn’t have command responsibility at such a distance”, said Efekele, who now resides in Belgium. Bemba was arrested in Belgium back in May 2008.
Efekele accused the ICC of applying “selective justice”. She said the Court had failed to take action against perpetrators of heinous crimes in the Congo. “What about the other crimes and militias in DRC? Why have they not been put on trial? Why only the CAR?
For now, Efekele says the MLC will have to find another candidate to run in Bemba’s stead in the next presidential election. At the same time, she is optimistic that Bemba, who came second in the 2006 presidential poll, will make a triumphant return to Congolese politics in the near future.
“The Congolese people have been waiting for Bemba to return… The MLC will organise and find a new candidate for the presidential elections. But we will not give up. He will appeal. He’s our president,” she concluded.
Efekele might as well have picked her talking points from the appeal about to be filed by Bemba’s attorneys seeking to overturn his conviction. In a statement released to the media earlier this week, the lawyers 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.”
The ICC premises on Tuesday afternoon were teeming with reporters and people from the DRC and CAR.
“Africans should be judged in Africa”
Among the throng we caught up with Yannick-Jenny Fernhout-Kottaud, who is originally from the CAR but is now based in Amsterdam. Bespectacled, scarfed and matronly, Kottaud said she had been following the trial from the beginning.
“I was the only one in the courtroom regularly,” she said.
She watched the proceedings with interest. She noticed the women judges, the women in the defence team and a female chief prosecutor. The optics of the courtroom had made quite an impression on her and she was relieved by the sentence. “Reasonable” was the word she used. She’d been worried that if it was too harsh, there would be a violent reaction.
Nonetheless, Kottaud said she is of the opinion “Africans should be judged in Africa.” Online it was not hard to find people who agreed with her on that. Some even took it a step further.
But the general sentiment online was that the former vice president of Congo got his just deserts. Since the Bemba trial also marked the first time the ICC had zeroed in on rape as a weapon of war, many are pleased with the precedent the case has set.
The trial provided many teachable moments for the prosecutor’s office on the treatment of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases. Experts like Mark Kersten hope the lessons will stick.
Photos: Janet Anderson/Justice Hub