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Former Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was convicted of murder, rape and pillage for commanding troops who committed widespread atrocities in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. (JERRY LAMPEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was convicted of murder, rape and pillage for commanding troops who committed widespread atrocities in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. (JERRY LAMPEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ex-Congolese vice-president convicted of war crimes, including rape Add to ...

By radio and satellite phone, as his soldiers raped and murdered civilians, the reports filtered back to the commander, Jean-Pierre Bemba. On the day of one particularly grisly attack, he made 16 calls to his officer on the scene.

From eyewitness testimony and satellite phone records such as these, the International Criminal Court pieced together Mr. Bemba’s role in atrocities in the Central African Republic. And on Monday, it made history by finding Mr. Bemba guilty of “command responsibility” for the rapes and murders – the first war-crimes conviction for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Mr. Bemba, a former Congolese vice-president, was stony-faced as he listened to the evidence against him in The Hague, occasionally shaking his head in disagreement. But human-rights groups hailed the verdict as a crucial step in the fight against wartime rape and the impunity of political leaders.

After a four-year trial in The Hague, the Congolese politician and militia leader was convicted of leading about 1,500 troops into the Central African Republic and allowing them to rape and kill civilians for several months in 2002 and 2003.

It was a landmark ruling – not only the first time that the International Criminal Court has convicted someone for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, but also the first time that the court has convicted a commander for having criminal responsibility for the acts committed by his troops.

Mr. Bemba, vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2003 to 2006, is the highest-ranking politician ever to be convicted by the international court. The court has filed charges against senior leaders from Kenya, Sudan and Ivory Coast but has had difficulty in getting arrests or convictions.

Delivering the unanimous verdict on Monday, presiding judge Sylvia Steiner gave horrific details of the atrocities by Mr. Bemba’s militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). His soldiers raped women, men and girls as young as 10, often at gunpoint in front of their families, she said.

Mr. Bemba was receiving regular reports from his military and civilian intelligence services, describing the murders and rapes by his soldiers, yet took no effective action to stop the atrocities, Judge Steiner said.

“Throughout the 2002-2003 operation, Mr. Bemba knew that the MLC forces under his effective authority and control were committing or about to commit the crimes against humanity of murder and rape, and the war crimes of murder, rape and pillaging,” she said.

Mr. Bemba, 53, was arrested in Brussels in 2008 and transferred to the ICC for prosecution. The trial took 330 days between 2010 and 2014, with testimony from 77 witnesses.

Mr. Bemba was ordered to remain in custody while awaiting the court’s sentence. His assets of about $6-million (U.S.) were frozen during the prosecution and could be used for reparations for the victims.

At the beginning of the trial, then-prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Mr. Bemba’s troops had targeted “the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world.” He added: “Women were raped systematically to assert dominance and to shatter resistance. Men were raped in public to destroy their authority and their capacity to lead.”

The United Nations human-rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said Monday’s verdict would help eradicate “the horrendous sexual crimes which have blighted the lives of so many women.”

Amnesty International lauded the verdict. “The judgment sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated,” said Samira Daoud, its deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.

“It also makes clear that military commanders and political superiors must take all necessary steps to prevent their subordinates from committing such heinous acts and will be held accountable if they fail to do so.”

The Central African Human Rights League said the ruling would have “paramount importance” in bringing justice for wartime rape victims.

The current ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said the survivors of the attacks by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers “are still haunted by the horror of what happened to them, and what they saw happen to other victims.”

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READ THE COURT'S FULL RULING

ICC's conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba

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