On March 21, the International Criminal Court made headlines after reaching a verdict on rebel leader and former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Jean-Pierre Bemba in The Hague, Netherlands. The charges stem from Bemba’s response to a 2002 attempted coup, where he garnered the support to create a group of militants known as The Movement for the Liberation of Congo in an attempt to staunch any further political uprising. As the leader of the MLC, Bemba was later offered entry into neighboring Central African Republic in an attempt to staunch an overthrow of Central African Republic government. Bemba has been found guilty of war crimes in response to his refusal to prevent MLC militants from sexually abusing civilians within the borders of the Central African Republic.
In the early 2000s, Bemba allowed nearly 1,000 of his armed men to enter into the country in response to a request from then-Central African President Ange-Félix Patassé. The attempt to stop the Central African coup was unsuccessful, but did not prevent MLC militants from taking advantage of civilian populations. Courts provided numerous testimonies of young women being raped and sexually exploited at gunpoint, oftentimes in public or in front of their families.
Bemba was later elected Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2006, and temporarily escaped international repercussions for his actions in Central African Republic. However, Bemba was arrested in Brussels in 2008, and his trial began in 2010. He was officially charged with two counts of crimes against humanity—murder and rape—and three counts of war crimes—murder, rape, and pillaging. Since Bemba has officially been found guilty of all charges, he will remain in custody until sentencing. While most sources expect Bemba to appeal the ruling, he runs the potential for 30 years in prison.
The case comes as a landmark for the civil rights of women, as this is the first time that the International Criminal Court has targeted rape as a war crime. Bemba is the first militant leader to be held accountable for the sexual abuse of civilians at the hands of troops under his control.
Chief prosecutor from the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, stated in a release that “while the reality of the crimes is appalling, the significance of this decision is to be celebrated.” Bensouda continued, “what this decision affirms is that commanders are responsible for the acts of the forces under their control.”
Bemba’s lawyers have declared that the actions of the MLC were not committed while Bemba was leading the group, and that Bemba had given complete discretion of his troops to Patassé during the time frame that the war crimes were committed. Responding to this statement, the presiding judge stated that Bemba must be held “criminally responsible” for the actions of the MLC. Despite the evidence against him, Bemba still remains politically popular within the Democratic Republic of the Congo.