HAGUE – In a historic ruling, Congolese ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has been convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and sexual violence. What makes this ruling historic is that for the first time ever, the ICC has recognised rape as a weapon of war and has convicted someone for actions of others under their command.

Bemba had previously led the MLC (Movement for the Liberation of Congo) rebel group during DR Congo’s rather bloody civil war, but following a peace deal in 2003, he joined an interim government, rising up to the position of Vice President.

In 2002, during his tenure as Vice President, Bemba had sent more than 1,000 fighters to the CAR to help then president Ange Felix Patasse put an end to an attempted coup.

Bemba’s troops were responsible for carrying out atrocious acts against civilians, which includes rape, murder and pillaging in neighbouring CAR. The court heard that while Bemba was made aware of his troops’ actions, he did nothing to put a stop to it.

At the Hague, Judge Sylvia Steiner, said while passing the sentence that Bemba sent his private militia into CAR and did nothing as they carried out “sadistic” rapes, murders and pillaging of “particular cruelty”.

For five counts of rape, murder and pillaging, Bemba has been sentenced to terms between 16 and 18 years. As he has already spent 8 years in custody, this will be deducted from his term.

Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s International Justice Advocacy Director, Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, said: “Other commanders should take notice that they, too, can be held accountable for rapes and other serious abuses committed by troops under their control.”

According to his lawyer, Kate Gibson, Bemba is “very dissappointed” with the judgement. She said: “Today’s sentence is by no means the end of the road for Mr Bemba, it merely signals that we are now moving to the next phase of the process which is the appeal.”

Where Bemba will serve his sentence and how much compensation will the victims receive are two questions that still need answering.

– The Global Panorama