/ 2 December 2009

DRC’s Bemba must stay in custody, says court

Former Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba poses a flight risk and a threat to witnesses and must remain in custody until his war crimes trial in The Hague next year, a judge said on Wednesday.

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) appeals chamber upheld an appeal brought by the prosecution against the ICC’s decision in August to grant Bemba a conditional release.

He has since remained in his holding cell in The Hague, however, as efforts to find a country willing to host him proved fruitless.

“The appeal chamber has decided that the decision of the first court should be reversed,” judge Akua Kuenyehia said on Wednesday.

The prosecution appealed on the grounds that Bemba, who could face a life sentence if convicted, was a flight risk and may harm witnesses in his trial, scheduled for April 27.

“The potential length of the sentence if Bemba is convicted is a further incentive for him to abscond,” Kuenyehia added.

The 47-year-old stands accused of three charges of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) from October 2002 to March 2003.

He will stand trial for acts of murder, rape and pillaging allegedly committed by members of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) while helping troops of then CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse resist a coup attempt.

“The defence can only rejoice over his continued detention, in the interest of demonstrating the truth,” said a lawyer for the victims, Mathias Barthelemy Morouba, in the CAR capital Bangui.

“We are convinced that the ICC understood that his provisional release posed risks for the procedure, and also for the security of the victims who are still living in fear, because Bemba’s partners in crime have not all been arrested.”

The secretary general of the MLC said he was shocked by the decision.

“It is with much sadness that we have learned of the news. We are approaching Christmas, we had strongly hoped that Jean-Pierre Bemba would spend the festivities of the end of the year with his family,” said Francois Muamba.

“We are astounded but we remain in sympathy with him. He remains our leader.”

Bemba’s trial will be the ICC’s third since it began operating in July 2002.

He was arrested on an ICC warrant in Brussels in May 2008. He fled the DRC after losing presidential elections held at the end of a transition period after the 1998-2003 civil war, during which he was one of four vice-presidents.

He had briefly led the opposition, but was forced into exile when government forces tried to disarm his private militia in clashes that killed 300 people in March 2007. — AFP