On Monday 22 November 2010, the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo commenced at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The accused is the former vice-President of the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader of the former Congolese rebel group, the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC).
The proceedings represent the first international trial to charge crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the Government of the CAR referred the situation to the ICC in 2004, with respect to crimes committed on its territory from 1 July 2002. As yet the case against Bemba remains the sole case before the ICC in relation to the situation in the CAR.
Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo has been charged as a person effectively acting as military commander within the meaning of Article 28(a) of the Rome Statute with the commission of two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging).
Widespread acts of sexual violence
Between October 2002 and March 2003, an armed conflict was fought in the CAR. The rebel forces of the former Chief of Staff of the CAR army, François Bozizé, mounted an offensive to overthrow then President, Ange-Félix Patassé. In order to quell the rebellion, Patassé requested the militia combatants of the MLC led by Bemba to enter the country. Bemba’s militias are widely accused of committing murder and widespread acts of sexual violence against the civilian population of the CAR.
Formal investigations by the ICC began more than two years after the situation was referred to the Court in 2004. On 23 May 2008, the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Bemba, who was detained in Brussels the following day. In July 2008, Bemba was transferred to the custody of the ICC.
After a confirmation of charges hearing in January 2009, the proceedings were adjourned when the Pre-Trial Chamber requested that the Prosecution consider filing an amended document containing the charges based on a different mode of responsibility. As noted, Bemba is now charged as a commander or superior under Article 28(a) of the Rome Statute, with the charges confirmed on 16 June 2009 by Pre-Trial Chamber II. The Pre-Trial Chamber nonetheless found insufficient evidence to support several charges, which were subsequently dropped from the case. Finally, on 19 October 2010 the Appeals Chamber dismissed an appeal challenging the admissibility of the case, paving the way for the trial to begin.
Decades of volatility
The Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered decades of volatility since gaining independence from France in 1960, including army revolts, coups and rebellions. The peak of violence from 2002-2003 during the armed conflict between the government and rebel forces was marked by the large number of acts of sexual violence committed against the civilian population.
After laying down his weapons, Bemba was elected as one of four vice-presidents as part of the Congolese transitional government. In 2006, Bemba campaigned for the presidency, but lost a run-off against current President, Joseph Kabila.