Acquitted DRCongo leader Bemba edges closer to freedom

Lawyers for former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba will call for his release Tuesday after he was acquitted of war crimes at the ICC in The Hague.  By Michael Kooren (POOL/AFP/File)

Lawyers for former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba will call for his release Tuesday after he was acquitted of war crimes at the ICC in The Hague. By Michael Kooren (POOL/AFP/File)

Jean-Pierre Bemba’s lawyers are set to argue Tuesday for his immediate release after international judges acquitted him of war crimes, as the former Congolese vice president edged closer towards freedom following a decade behind bars.

Bemba was acquitted on appeal Friday by the International Criminal Court, who said he could not be held criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

Bemba’s lawyer Peter Haynes told journalists after his acquittal that his client “should be released without delay”.

“He should be gone. Having acquitted him the court has a duty to release him or act with expeditiousness,” said Haynes.

The stocky former rebel leader however for now remains behind bars.

Bemba is currently awaiting another sentence in a separate case in which he was handed one year in jail and fined 300,000 euros ($350,000) for bribing witnesses during his main war crimes trial.

He lost an appeal against that sentence and the ICC is yet to decide on a new jail term, which carries a maximum of five-years.

Immediate release?

Haynes however argued his client had already spent a decade at the Hague-based ICC following his arrest in 2008 in Belgium, thus negating any possible change in sentence handed down by the court.

“The position is that he has spent… 10 years in custody. I can’t imagine any circumstances in which there will be a change from 12 months to five years,” said Haynes.

Tuesday’s hearing before judge Bertram Schmitt is in the form of a so-called status conference “to discuss the matter of the continued detention of Mr Bemba in this case,” the judge said in a court document.

Although it is highly unlikely that Schmitt will order Bemba’s immediate release, a second hearing or written order to that effect may soon follow, legal experts say.

The ICC in a statement said “a decision on this matter will be made subsequently in due course.”

“I would be very surprised if he was not immediately released,” former US ambassador for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp told AFP.

“The most obvious would be to release him tomorrow (Tuesday),” added Thijs Bouwknegt of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

“It’s a simple mathematical equation,” Bouwknegt told AFP.

Surprise acquittal

Friday’s surprise decision came after Bemba, 55, was sentenced unanimously to 18 years in 2016 by ICC trial judges in the longest sentence ever to be handed to a suspect before the Hague-based court.

Then, judges found Bemba — nicknamed “Miniature Mobutu” — guilty on five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his private army during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring CAR.

Bemba had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) — a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation — into the DRCongo’s northern neighbour in October 2002 to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Felix Patasse.

Bemba was likely to join his family in Belgium as soon as he is freed, Haynes told journalists last week.

It is not yet known whether or when the former Congolese leader planned to return to the vast central African country following his release.

Bemba had unsuccessfully opposed President Joseph Kabila in elections in 2006. After his militia clashed violently with government forces in 2007, he was forced out of the DRC but retains a groundswell of support.

His acquittal came amid mounting tensions in the run-up to scheduled presidential elections on December 23.

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