THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A Congolese warlord goes on trial at the International Criminal Court next week, accused of letting his troops kill and rape hundreds during a coup attempt in the Central African Republic.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the most senior political leader to be put on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) so far.
His case will be the court’s first chance to judge whether a leader, who might not have directly ordered or committed violence, can still be held responsible for atrocities. The case focuses on sexual crimes.
Bemba is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for leading troops into the Central African Republic between late 2002 and early 2003 at the invitation of Ange-Felix Patasse, the republic’s then president, to put down coup attempts.
“After Bemba’s troops conquered the areas where the rebels were, they organised small groups to move from house to house, raping and pillaging, killing those who opposed them,” ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told journalists on Thursday.
“The weapon in this case was massive. It was an army.”
Bemba, 48, has so far refused to enter a plea at the ICC and his defence lawyers have not responded to requests for comment.
Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, said the trial “presents an opportunity for the court to say ... to women, that crimes of sexual violence are important enough to prosecute those who commit such acts.” Inder’s organisation is a non-governmental organisation that supports the ICC’s work.
The trial was delayed by several months because Bemba’s defence called for the case to be dismissed, arguing that he had already been investigated in the Central African Republic and could not be prosecuted twice for the same crime.
The court ruled against Bemba’s arguments last month, saying the Central African Republic’s highest court had overturned a 2004 ruling to dismiss charges against him and rightly referred his case to the ICC.
Prosecutors accuse Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces of “widespread and systematic” attacks against civilians between October 2002 and March 2003 and said that Bemba, who had authority over those troops, failed to intervene.
Such cases can still take years and prosecutors face enormous difficulties linking political leaders to crimes committed.
The trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic dragged on for more than four years and ended with his death in custody in 2006, without a verdict, while the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor is still going on in Sierra Leone.
Bemba’s trial is the ICC’s third trial and Mariana Pena, a panel representative at the ICC for the International Federation for Human Rights, expects more than 1,000 victims to participate in the proceedings to present evidence via their lawyers. That would be many more than in the first two trials at the ICC, where victims have the right to seek reparations if suspects are convicted.
Bemba was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and transferred to the ICC in The Hague in the Netherlands.
The trial will be held in front of a panel of three judges, presided over by Kenyan judge Joyce Aluoch and the prosecutor expects to call 36 crime witnesses and four expert witnesses.
The trial is expected to last at least several months.