ICC overturns war crimes conviction for ex-Congolese leader Bemba

Bemba seen here in 2009 had been handed an 18-year term for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The verdict was overturned on appeal on Friday

Democratic Republic of Congo warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba has successfully overturned his landmark conviction.

Bemba, who has already spent nearly a decade in jail, will not be immediately released from detention in The Hague after he lost a separate appeal against a conviction for bribing witnesses.

Bemba was transferred to the ICC in July 2008 and charged with three counts of war crimes - murder, rape, and pillaging - and two counts of crimes against humanity - murder and rape.

Bemba had appealed an 18-year sentence handed to him in June 2016 for crimes committed in the Central African Republic.

According to the ICC appeals chamber, the judges who ruled in the 2016 case failed to take into account his attempts to stop the crimes once he was made aware they were taking place.

Presiding judge Christine Van den Wijngaert on Friday, said the former vice-president and leader of the country's main opposition party could not be held responsible for crimes committed by troops under his control in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-2003. In June 2016, Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Solomon Sacco, head of Amnesty International's global justice team, said "the decision will be felt as a huge blow for the many victims of the "war against women" waged in the Central African Republic through a horrifying campaign of rape and sexual violence".

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It was also the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.

Bemba sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), into neighbouring auto in October 2002 to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Felix Patasse.

Karine Bonneau of the International Federation for Human Rights said the decision was devastating for an estimated 5,000 victims of troops under Bemba who were awaiting the ruling.

But a judge has now said he can not be held responsible for their actions.

"Twenty years after its creation, has the ICC just scuttled itself?" she said in a statement.

He said Bemba would probably go to Belgium to meet with his family there before returning to Congo after he is released.

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.

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