Congolese Politician, Jean-Pierre Bemba, Is Convicted of War Crimes
Marlise Simons, The New York Times
21 March 2016
Image: Jean-Pierre Bemba, center, at the International Criminal Court on Monday in The Hague.CreditPool photo by Jerry Lampen
PARIS — The International Criminal Court convicted a Congolese politician, Jean-Pierre Bemba, of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Monday, finding him culpable for a devastating campaign of rape, murder and torture in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
A panel of three judges convicted Mr. Bemba of murder and pillaging, and defined the large-scale rape by his soldiers as a crime against humanity and as a war crime.
Other international courts, including the United Nations tribunals for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, have issued convictions for rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity — but Monday was the first time the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, had done so.
Largely because of pressure from human rights advocates and women’s groups, organized or mass rape is increasingly being recognized and prosecuted as a weapon of war, not as a byproduct of it.
The conviction of Mr. Bemba — who was far from the battleground while his militia committed its crimes — was noteworthy in a second respect: It was the first time the court had applied the principle of command or superior responsibility. The judges found that Mr. Bemba was culpable for having “failed to prevent” the crimes committed by his subordinates, and for doing nothing to punish the offenses.
The judges on the panel were all women. The presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner of Brazil, read a summary of the verdict, noting crimes like the gang rape of women and girls as young as 10. Some were assaulted in the presence of family members and other children, she said.
Mr. Bemba’s case was taken up by the International Criminal Court at the request of the government of the Central African Republic, where the justice system lacks the ability to prosecute him. The country does not have a witness protection program that could shield rape victims and help ensure their cooperation.
Advocacy groups applauded the conviction for its focus on large-scale rape, among them Physicians for Human Rights. “The stigma and shame of this crime is moving where it belongs: to the perpetrator rather than the victim,” the group said in a statement.
Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the verdict offered “a stark reminder to commanders — military and civilian — that they are responsible for preventing and halting any attacks by their forces on civilians and for punishing violators.”
She said the case also highlighted the use of rape as a weapon of war, and she called for additional prosecutions of war crimes perpetrators in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Bemba is only the third person — but the most senior — to be found guilty in the history of the court. A millionaire businessman from a prominent family, Mr. Bemba was vice president before going into exile after losing a 2006 election. His arrest in 2008, during a visit to Belgium, was a shock in Congo. Many Congolese had regarded him as untouchable. Mr. Bemba tried to claim diplomatic immunity.
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