Acquittal of Jean Pierre Bemba on appeal: an affront to thousands of victims

(The Hague, Paris, Bangui) Today, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided, by majority, to overturn the conviction by the Trial Chamber and acquitted Jean-Pierre Bemba. FIDH and its partners in the Central African Republic (CAR), which had documented the crimes attributed to Bemba’s troops committed in CAR in 2002 and 2003, then referred the matter to the ICC, regret that this judgement exonerates the warlord and leaves the victims without recourse.

"This verdict, which relies primarily on the fact that Bemba was not present in Bangui at the time of the abuses, is an insult to the thousands of victims of the army that he equipped, led and sent to desolate the Central African Republic."

Karine Bonneau, Head of FIDH’s International Justice Desk

The Appeals Chamber indicated that the Trial Chamber judges had convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba for criminal acts that did not form part of the confirmed charges. It also ruled that the Trial Chamber erred by affirming that Bemba had not taken the necessary measures to prevent the crimes and punish the members of his troops responsible for the abuses.

The responsibility of Jean-Pierre Bemba as superior (pursuant to Article 28 of the ICC Statute) could not therefore be held, according to the three judges of the majority. The appeals judges therefore acquitted Bemba of all charges constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity, since they were all based on this mode of responsibility. Two appeals judges issued dissenting opinions, defending the confirmation of the conviction and criticising strongly the decision of the majority.

Since 2002-2003, FIDH and the Central African League for Human Rights (LCDH) have been documenting the crimes in CAR, including by Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) troops [1]. Crimes that the ICC Trial Chamber had described as ‘particularly cruel’ when it sentenced him in March 2016 to 18 years’ imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including repeated gang rapes.

The elements of evidence collected in the field by FIDH, then by the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC, and confirmed by the Trial Chamber, attested to the modus operandi of the MLC: JP Bemba, as the military commander, had knowledge of these crimes and had done nothing to prevent them or punish the perpetrators. FIDH had specifically given the ICC the proof of a letter sent by Bemba to the FIDH President in which he acknowledged the existence of the crimes committed by his troops.

The crimes of the MLC against the civilian population were massive and systematic. Sexual violence and in particular rape were used as a weapon of war to humiliate, terrify and punish the Central African civilian population, accused of complicity with the rebellion. The modus operandi of these crimes are almost always the same from one narrative to another: brutal entry into the home; racketeering of money; terror inflicted by sporadic or targeted fire; gang rapes.

"A few months ago, we released a report on the survivors of the Bemba troops, estimated at more than 5000 victims. The survivors we met were anxiously awaiting reparations for the horrors they had suffered. Today, judges have just stolen their last hopes for compensation and are sending them back to their loneliness and precariousness,’

Karine Bonneau, Head of FIDH International Justice Desk

Having sometimes lost everything (relatives, support, property), many are sick (HIV infection during rapes) and suffer serious physical and psychological harm. They are also still stigmatised and rejected for the rapes they have suffered. During the last FIDH mission in CAR with the victims of the crimes attributed to Bemba and his troops, two rape victims told us: ‘I was relieved to see that Jean Pierre Bemba had been convicted (in 2016)’; ‘When he was convicted, my heart calmed down a little’ [2].

In 2015, the Central African government and the United Nations created the Special Criminal Court (SCC), with special jurisdiction within the Central African justice system to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of the serious violations of human rights and international human rights committed in CAR since 1 January 2003.

"At the time when the SCC Prosecutor is launching his first investigations, it is essential that they also focus on bringing justice to the victims of the conflict in 2003 and prosecute the perpetrators."

Mathias Morouba, President of the Central African Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH)

FIDH, LCDH and OCDH’s commitment in this case

Since 2002, FIDH and its member and partner organisations have regularly documented the crimes perpetrated in CAR, supporting victims to access justice. They submitted in particular communications to the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, highlighting the gravity of the crimes as well as the inability and lack of willingness by the state to investigate and prosecute those responsible. FIDH and its member organisations have actively advocated for sexual and gender-based violence to be taken into particular account, especially during investigations by the Office of the Prosecutor. The elements of evidence submitted by FIDH were relied upon by the Office of the Prosecutor, victims’ legal representatives and judges - including in their decision convicting Bemba in the first instance.

In the Prosecution’s submission on sentencing, the FIDH report was also used to indicate Mr. Bemba’s complete disregard for the victims of crimes committed by his troops.

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