Lawyer Appeals for Release of Former Congo Vice President

Jean-Pierre-Bemba
Former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba

A lawyer for former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba urged International Criminal Court judges Tuesday (12 June 2018) to release him immediately following his acquittal last week on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes and the overturning of his 18-year sentence.

“We respectfully submit that there is no legal or objective justification to separate Mr. Bemba from his family for one day further,” his lawyer Melinda Taylor told judges. “We therefore request that he be immediately released to Belgium.”

Tuesday’s hearing focused on a case in which Bemba was convicted of interfering with witnesses during his trial. He remains jailed pending a decision on his sentence in that case, in which he faces a maximum of five years and a hefty fine.

Taylor told judges that Bemba has already served nine-tenths of the maximum sentence possible in this conviction and should be freed to rejoin his wife and children in Belgium while he awaits a final ruling on the sentence.

Prosecutors, however, warned that there was still a risk that Bemba could abscond if released and urged judges to keep him detained until a hearing on his final sentence, which they said could happen soon. Prosecutors want Bemba sentenced to the maximum five years.

A hearing to determine a final sentence has been set for July 4.

Judges will issue a decision by Wednesday on the application to release Bemba.

Bemba was found guilty in 2016 as a military commander of two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for a campaign of murder, rape and pillaging by his troops, known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

But in a 3-2 majority ruling appeals judges said Friday that the trial chamber “erred in its evaluation of Mr. Bemba’s motivation and the measures that he could have taken in light of the limitations he faced in investigating and prosecuting crimes as a remote commander sending troops to a foreign country.”

His defense lawyer in that case, Peter Haynes, said he would consider it “very unusual” if judges do not now free Bemba.

“I think the message has to be, this case is over now; it’s time for everybody to let it go,” Haynes said.