The acquittal of alleged warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba is incomprehensible. It could even be the spark that ignites a new wave of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says Dirke Köpp.
Rage, anger and lack of understanding — these were the emotions after the International Criminal Court (ICC) overturned former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba's convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity in a 3-2 ruling, over charges of serious procedural errors.
Bemba was sentenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison, after being convicted of charges of murder, rape and pillaging in the Central African Republic (CAR) during a 2002-2003 coup. He may not have murdered anyone with his own hands, but as the supreme commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo rebel forces, he is responsible for the crimes they committed. He did not prevent the militia from murder, rape and torture.
The acquittal is a huge blow for the many victims of the murderous militia. Victims who were raped, and who may have contracted AIDS as a result. Victims whose family members were murdered, who lost their belongings, who will be traumatized for the rest of their lives. Victims who are stigmatized to this day. Or who are dead.
It is obviously difficult to judge crimes that were committed at a different time and on a different continent, and of course Bemba was not on-site when the crimes were being committed. But human rights organizations and the ICC's chief prosecutors provided enough evidence showing Bemba's guilt. He is responsible for not taking action against the crimes committed by his militia men. And this evidence was also presented to the appeal court judges.
Competition for Kabila
Next to the understandable rage of the victims, there is another very important aspect: If Bemba is released soon, as is expected, he will actively take a hand in Congo's politics. And those politics are already complicated and brutal, even without the involvement of an alleged war criminal.
Bemba's acquittal is also a blow to Congo's President Joseph Kabila. Conspiracy theorists have even called it a plot or a tactic to force Kabila out of office — Bemba still has many supporters in Congo, and is seen as a serious competitor for Kabila in the upcoming presidential election, planned for December 2018.
Above all, Bemba's possible return strikes fear in Congo of more violence. If Bemba, who has been behind bars for 10 years, actually takes on Kabila in an (electoral) fight, it's likely this battle will claim further victims.