On June 8, the International Criminal Court (ICC) shocked the international justice community and the world by overturning the war crimes conviction of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba’s acquittal is a major event that will have significant consequences for the ICC, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Bemba had been in custody in The Hague for 10 years and was convicted in 2016 under the command responsibility legal doctrine for having failed to prevent his militia from committing crimes in the CAR that included murder, rape, and pillaging.
He had been sentenced to 18 years in prison. By a majority ruling, the panel of five judges in the ICC Appeals Chamber (two judges dissenting) reversed the previous conviction earlier this month and acquitted Bemba of all charges against him. The Appeals Chamber found that the Trial Chamber had erred in declaring that Bemba did not take enough measures to prevent the crimes committed by his militia in the CAR. The judges argued that the Trial Chamber had failed to appreciate the limitations that Bemba faced.
He was a “remote commander” of his troops, the majority argued, and he faced “logistical difficulties” as his men were operating in a foreign country. The majority ruling also declared that the Trial Chamber had convicted Bemba based on crimes that went beyond the scope of those confirmed during the pre-trial phase. This acquittal is a major setback for the Office of the Prosecutor, which has had its fair share of blunders and shortcomings over the years.
With the failed prosecution of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy Wiliam Ruto, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir still at large, and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo’s trial dragging on, Bemba was the highest profile politician to have been convicted by the Court. As the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) a rebel group turned political party, Bemba even forced incumbent President Joseph Kabila to a runoff in 2006, in the end losing with no less than 48 percent of the votes. In 2002, Bemba had sent MLC fighters to the CAR, at the request of then-President Ange-Felix Patasse, who was fighting off an attempted coup by his army Chief of Staff Francois Bozize.
It was in that conflict that the MLC fighters were accused of committing the atrocities that led to Bemba’s arrest and indictment. Bemba’s conviction under the command responsibility doctrine was a landmark conviction for the ICC, as it was the first instance in which the court prosecuted someone for rape as a weapon of war. Now, his acquittal made his case all the more consequential for many actors and constituencies in international criminal justice.