The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Congolese vice president, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Central African Republic more than a decade ago.

The verdicts announced on Monday focused on the responsibility of a military commander for the actions of his troops, as Bemba commanded a private army of 1,500 men who went on a spree of murder, rape and pillage.

The charges - two of crimes against humanity and three of war crimes - stem from his militia's intervention on the side of CAR's then-president Ange-Felix Patasse in the neighbouring country's civil war.

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Bemba's long-running trial was the first at the ICC to feature allegations of systematic sexual abuse by soldiers in a conflict.

Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan, reporting from The Hague, said the ICC's ruling was historic in several ways.

"Bemba is not only the most senior political leader ever to have been brought to judgment here at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, but what makes this particular case a landmark ruling is the fact that it has put rape as a weapon of war," Brennan said.   

Human rights activists welcomed the conviction.

Descartes Mponge, secretary general of Congolese rights group Acadhosha, said the judgment "strengthens the ICC's credibility in Africa where it is accused of bias and politicisation".

Bemba is a wealthy businessman whose Movement for the Liberation of Congo militia and political party vied for dominance in the country in the early 2000s. 

Summing up the case against Bemba in November 2014, prosecution lawyer Horejah Bala-Gaye told judges that Bemba's forces "raped their victims at gunpoint anywhere and at any time".

Bemba's lawyers told judges in their closing arguments that there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

'Bemba had no control'

The ICC's prosecutors said Bemba knew, or should have known, that his MLC soldiers were committing crimes.

During the five-year trial, 40 witnesses testified. One described being raped by two MLC soldiers. She later had HIV/Aids diagnosed.

Bemba's lawyers said that he had no control over the MLC's campaign in CAR, during which they claim its soldiers were fully under Patasse's command.

His arrest in 2008 came as a surprise both to Bemba and his supporters and opponents at home. He had been living in semi-exile in Europe for several years when prosecutors sprung a trap by issuing an arrest warrant during a visit to Belgium, Congo's former colonial master.

Speaking slowly, presiding judge Sylvia Steiner read out a chilling list of rapes and atrocities, detailing how MLC forces had deliberately targeted civilians as part of a "modus operandi" as they sought to halt the coup bid against Patasse.

Men, women and children were all raped - in one case three generations of the same family were gang-raped by MLC soldiers who held them at gunpoint and forced relatives to watch.

Bemba will be sentenced at a later date and could face up to 30 years in jail - or even a life sentence, if the court considers that it is "justified by the extreme gravity of the crime".

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Source: Al Jazeera and agencies