The Bemba Case: Heavily criticised, the ICC must maintain victims’ legal representation as the establishment of assistance programmes for victims is awaited

(Bangui) FIDH and its member organisations in the Central African Republic (CAR), LCDH and OCDH, who have accompanied victims since 2002, have just completed a new mission with victims of the Bemba case. Rejection of the International Criminal Court (ICC), lack of understanding, gap between the acquittal of Jean Pierre Bemba and what they actually lived through, and hope for assistance from the ICC Trust Fund for Victims, are among the feelings and expectations of victims. These are lessons that the ICC, and also the Special Criminal Court, must learn.

"Enraged", "shocked", "sad", "abandoned by the ICC", "disappointed with international justice and the satisfaction we expected". Dozens of victims interviewed during the FIDH mission used these words when reacting to Jean-Pierre Bemba’s acquittal by the ICC Appeals Chamber last 8 June. Indeed, after ten years of proceedings and a conviction in first instance for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in CAR in 2002-2003 by the troops of the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) he was heading, Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted by the Appeals Chamber of the ICC, in a majority decision, on 8 June 2018.

"Look, I’ve got scars on my body from the Bemba militia".
"We saw Bemba arrive by helicopter, ransack our homes, leave with our belongings, and give orders here", declared PK12 and Damara victims, taken aback when FIDH was explaining the reasons for the acquittal.
"I am worried". "This acquittal will increase tensions in the Central African Republic, others will think they don’t risk anything.” "Bemba’s actions here will be copied". "Don’t you think that Bemba’s acquittal will encourage others to commit more crimes ?" "Will his accomplices and co-perpetrators be tried? "
Some victims, who saw Bemba’s conviction as the final hope for justice and recognition, have decided to stop their anti-retroviral treatment.
"After having testified, participated, and attended many meetings, everything stopped, no one came to see us". "What hurts the most, is, that in the eyes of the world, we don’t exist anymore".

"How did it happen that Bemba was not found guilty? »
"The ICC did not do its work properly".

The victims’ feeling of shock, rejection, anger, and dissatisfaction were even greater because they learned about the acquittal on the radio, without any explanation about its contents and its implications.

"It is urgent that the Court develops far reaching information and outreach programmes, that it reaches out directly to the victims and affected communities in the Central African Republic to explain the acquittal and its consequences and why Bemba has been acquitted but also found guilty of witness tampering. "

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Up to now, only a minority of the participating victims in this case were able to meet with their legal representatives, with the support of the ICC field office. The security situation and the displacement of many victims contributed to the difficulties of holding meetings between all victims and their legal representatives. While the ICC judges left it up to the Registrar to decide on the continuation of the mandate of the victims’ legal representatives, it is essential, for the victims to be duly informed and to present their observations, that this mandate be continued and does not end in November, as it has been announced.

“Victims’ legal representatives are the only link between the victims and the ICC. It is their obligation to meet with all their clients, with the assistance of the ICC. Trust in the ICC may have been lost, but the trust in the representatives remains. It is now the victims’ legal representatives who can best define and ensure the establishment of assistance programmes of the Trust Fund for Victims. Without them, it would be impossible to identify the victims and their needs, and it would be impossible for the victims to trust the Fund. From now on, the credibility of the ICC in CAR will depend on the swift implementation of truly meaningful assistance measures.”

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The day after the acquittal, the Trust Fund for Victims announced that one million euros from the voluntary contributions would be earmarked for medical, psychological and material assistance programmes for the 5,229 victims participating in the case, as well as other victims of sexual and gender based violence in the 2002-2003 conflict. After its mission to CAR, the Trust Fund will soon submit an assistance plan to ICC judges for approval. The Fund is aware of the urgency of providing assistance to victims whose lives are directly being threatened, and is trying to personalise this assistance and to establish it very quickly.

“The Fund is right in wanting to start providing this assistance very quickly. The judges should also express their opinions swiftly. After 10 years of proceedings and one acquittal, the victims will no longer wait. States Parties should support the actions of the Fund and increase its resources or the whole ICC system and international justice will collapse in CAR.”

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Indeed, it is only this concrete and useful action by the Fund that can allay ICC rejection, for the Bemba case, and beyond. Some victims who are also concerned by the current ICC investigation on crimes allegedly committed by the Seleka and the anti-Balaka since 2012 have already stated that they no longer want to collaborate with the Court. The loss of confidence in the ICC has extended to the Special Criminal Court, a hybrid court, even before it has started its investigations.

“Multiple outreach programmes and a duty to provide more thorough explanations and communications for victims and affected communities; well balanced prosecutoral strategies ; convictions that are more rooted in the realities of the crimes committed in the field and that are compliant with international law; the establishment of a Fund for the reparation to victims : these are the elements that will make the actions of the international and internationalised criminal justice legitimate and effective."

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