Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is a former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), a Congolese political party that emerged from a militia group of the same name. He has a long-standing reputation as a very successful businessman. He was arrested in 2008 in response to a warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he faces charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes relating to alleged MLC atrocities committed in the Central African Republic. His trial in The Hague began on November 22, 2010.
Mr. Bemba has a degree in business from Belgium and served as personal assistant to President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (as the DRC was previously named). Shortly after Laurent Kabila displaced Mobutu as the country’s president in 1997, Rwanda and Uganda sought his overthrow. In 1998, Uganda supported Mr. Bemba in founding the MLC, one of several rebel groups launched against Kabila from eastern DRC. The MLC quickly proved successful in establishing control over much of northern DRC.
In 2002, President Ange-Félix Patassé of the neighboring Central African Republic invited the MLC into his country to help put down a coup attempt.
Back in the DRC, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila became President. Under a 2003 peace arrangement, Mr. Bemba took office as one of four Vice Presidents of the country. From July 2003 until December 2006, he was Vice President in charge of finance. Mr. Bemba challenged Joseph Kabila in 2006 presidential elections. Mr. Kabila won a run-off election against Mr. Bemba, who questioned the fairness of the vote. In January 2007, Mr. Bemba was elected to the DRC Senate.
In March 2007 there were serious clashes in Kinshasa between Mr. Bemba’s supporters and government forces. Shortly after the violence, Mr. Bemba traveled to Portugal for medical treatment. He remained in Europe, citing concern for his security in the DRC, where he was accused of treason. In May 2008, he was arrested in Belgium on an ICC warrant related to atrocities allegedly committed by the MLC in the Central African Republic.
What are the charges against Jean-Pierre Bemba?
The Pre-Trial Chamber decided on June 15, 2009 that there was enough evidence to proceed to a full trial of Mr. Bemba on five criminal counts related to events in the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 26, 2002 and March 15, 2003.
Two of these charges are for crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three for war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). The Prosecutor alleges that Mr. Bemba is responsible for these crimes carried out by his MLC militia in locations including Bangui, PK 12, Boy-Rabé, Fou, Mongoumba, Bossangoa, Damara, Bossembélé, Sibut, Bozoum and Bossemptele.
Crimes against Humanity
The Prosecutor alleges that Mr. Bemba is criminally responsible for widespread or systematic murder and rape that amount to crimes against humanity. In its filing of amended charges before the Pre-Trial Chamber on March 30, 2009, the prosecution offered its view of MLC motives for carrying out the alleged crimes:
“These crimes were used as a tool, or one of the means necessary to maintain Patassé’s Presidency. By subjecting the CAR civilian population to cruel, inhuman and humiliating attacks, the MLC troops instilled a general climate of fear in the CAR population, with the hope of effectively destabilizing the opposing army.”
The Prosecutor alleges that Mr. Bemba knew that his conduct was, or was intended to be part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population.
Murder (Article 7(1)(a) of the Rome Statute)
The Prosecutor accuses Mr. Bemba of criminal responsibility for widespread or systematic killings in CAR. The Pre-Trial Chamber found that there was enough evidence to proceed with this charge. The Chamber based its conclusion on the direct statements of witnesses who had seen family members murdered by MLC troops.
Rape constituting a crime against humanity (Article 7(1)(g) of the Rome Statute)
The Prosecutor accuses Mr. Bemba of criminal responsibility for widespread or systematic rape in CAR. According to the amended prosecution filing before the Pre-Trial Chamber of March 30, 2009, “Men, women and children were raped by multiple MLC perpetrators in their homes, raped in front of family members, forced to watch rapes of family members and raped in public locations including streets, fields and farms. Many of the women victims of rapes and gang-rapes contracted HIV, and became pregnant as a result of these rapes.”
The Prosecutor alleges that these rapes served a purpose for the MLC: “Women were raped on the pretext that they were rebel sympathizers. Men were also raped as a deliberate tactic to humiliate civilian men, and demonstrate their powerlessness to protect their families.”
In deciding to confirm this charge, the Pre-Trial Chamber found that the direct evidence provided by several witnesses consistently showed that they “were raped by several MLC perpetrators in turn, that their clothes were ripped off by force, that they were pushed to the ground, immobilized by MLC soldiers standing on or holding them, raped at gunpoint, in public or in front of or near their family members.” In its decision, the Chamber also took notice of indirect evidence provided by several NGO and UN reports. These documents also reported a large number of rapes committed in the same locations and during the same time period as those mentioned by direct witnesses.
By definition, war crimes can only be committed during an armed conflict, whether international or internal. The Pre-Trial Chamber determined that during the timeframe of the crimes alleged by the Prosecutor, there was an internal armed conflict in CAR. The Chamber also found that the MLC constituted an “armed group” because it was structured like a regular army, it was present on CAR territory in support of the CAR government, and that the objective of the MLC’s mission was to engage in armed combat and counter the attacks of forces aligned with then-rebel leader François Bozizé.
Murder constituting a war crime (Article 8(2)(c)(i) of the Rome Statute)
Based on the same evidence it heard in approving the charge of murder as a crime against humanity (see above), the Pre-Trial Chamber found that as MLC forces moved in battle throughout CAR, they killed civilians. These acts constitute war crimes.
Rape constituting a war crime (Article 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Rome Statute)
Based on the same evidence it heard in approving the charge of rape as a crime against humanity (see above), the Pre-Trial Chamber found that there was substantial evidence that MLC forces committed rape as a war crime.
Pillaging constituting a war crime (Article 8(2)(e)(v) of the Rome Statute)
To satisfy the crime of pillaging as a war crime the Prosecutor must establish that the perpetrator took certain property and that this was done without approval of the owner. The Rome Statute requires that such theft be on a large-scale and include all types of property, such as public or private, movable or immovable property. For a charge of pillaging as a war crime, the Prosecutor must prove that the perpetrator purposefully removed the property from the owner without his or her consent.
The Pre-Trial Chamber found that the MLC perpetrators committed various acts of pillaging against CAR civilians with intent and knowledge. The Chamber pointed to direct and indirect evidence showing that MLC soldiers entered houses by force, and that they demanded and took money and other valuable goods from CAR civilians. Furthermore, the Chamber discovered that these acts were not justified by military necessity and were often accompanied by punishment if there was resistance.