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War crimes trial of Congo's former vice president begins in The Hague

The trial of former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has begun at the International Criminal Court. He's accused of war crimes committed seven years ago in the Central African Republic but has denied all charges.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, right, with one of his lawyers at the International Criminal Court

Jean-Pierre Bemba, right, faces multiple charges at the ICC

In July 2006, during the election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jean-Pierre Bemba seemed poised to become the country's next president.

It didn't happen. His opponent, Joseph Kabila, won the vote. About a year later Bemba fled to Portugal after clashes between his bodyguards and soldiers loyal to Kabila.

In May 2008, he was arrested by Belgian police and two months later he was in a prison not far from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On Monday, the former vice president of Congo, a rebel leader and leader of Congo's main opposition party stood before judges at the ICC, charged with three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for murder, rape and pillage allegedly committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) rebel forces in the Central African Republic from October 2002 to March 2003.

MLC soldiers had been invited into the Central African Republic by then-president Ange-Felix Patasse to help put down a coup. The coup leader, former army chief Francois Bozize, overthrew Patasse and in 2004 called in the ICC to investigate.

According to the lawyer for the victims of Bemba's alleged crimes, Monday is a very important day.

"Even if it can never make up for the harm done, the victims need to know the truth and have the possibility to tell their stories," said Marie-Edith Lawson of The Association of Women Lawyers in the Central African Republic. "The culprits must be punished. That would give at least some moral satisfaction to the victims."

Local leader at fault, supporters say

Bemba with supporters in 2006

Bemba during happier days before Congolese elections in 2006

But supporters of Bemba say the DRC senator and wealthy businessman is not guilty of the charges brought against him. Even if Bemba was the leader of the MLC, he didn't have anything to do with atrocities committed in the Central African Republic.

According to Bemba's lawyer, Aime Kilolo, it needs to be clarified who was the real military leader involved - not of the MCL overall, but from the contingent stationed in Bangui in the period during which the alleged crimes took place.

"Our position is clear: the Central African government asked the MLC for soldiers and these men were made available to a sovereign state," said Kilolo. "Therefore it is not possible to say that Jean-Pierre Bemba was the local leader."

Bemba's lawyers have repeatedly submitted petitions to get the case dismissed.

Responsible as leader

But to prosecutors and joint plaintiffs, Bemba's location during the atrocities is not the deciding factor in determining his innocence or guilt.

Lawson says that just because Bemba was not at the location where the atrocities took place does not mean that he did not know about them. He could have just as well given orders from afar, she says.

It's this aspect of the case that makes it so unusual. To win their case, prosecutors must prove that those committing the crimes were Bemba's subordinates, that he had knowledge of the crimes and that he constantly failed to act or punish those crimes.

"This is the first trail in which someone must take responsibility as a military leader and not as a perpetrator or accomplice," said Fadil Abdallah, the legal outreach officer at the ICC.

"The International Criminal Court is thereby sending a strong signal that there is no immunity from prosecution for someone who holds political or administrative responsibility in his country."

ICC in the Hague

Prosecutors at the ICC must prove Bemba's subordinates committed the crimes

Big trial, big challenges

But experts have said a case like this can be tough to prove.

The trial is expected to last several months. The court has accepted 135 victims as participants in this trial and at least 37 are expected to testify. Another 1,200 applications from other victims are under consideration. Preparations have already been going on for more than two years.

Besides the legal challenges facing the court, it also has an obligation to communicate often complicated trial proceedings across thousands of miles to populations in two central African countries, where infrastructures are often creaking at best.

In the DRC at least, the ICC has been accused of failing to communicate with local people, leading to misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides.

Author: Constanze von Kotze/jam
Editor: Michael Knigge

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