Ex-DRC leader on war crimes charges
International Criminal Court says Jean-Pierre Bember to face trial over militia's conduct.
Last Modified: 16 Jun 2009 03:12 GMT
Jean-Pierre Bemba is to stand trial on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity [AFP]

A leading political figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled on Monday that Jean-Pierre Bemba - a former vice-president of the country - will now face trial for a series of offences committed by his troops.

According to a court statement, a pre-trial panel of judges at The Hague "found that there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Jean-Pierre Bemba is criminally responsible" for murder, rape and pillaging.

They "referred the case for trial" on three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for atrocities allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) from October 2002 to March 2003 by militia controlled by Bemba.

Bemba appeared before the ICC in The Hague in January for a hearing to confirm the charges against him, following his arrest on an ICC warrant during a visit to Brussels in May 2008.

After a years-long civil war in the DRC, Bemba became one of four vice-presidents in a transitional government ahead of elections in the country in 2006.

He unsuccessfully challenged Joseph Kabila for the presidency.

'Atrocities committed'

Bemba then led the opposition, but was forced into exile when government forces tried to disarm his private militia in clashes that killed at least 300 people in March 2007.

Prosecutors claim Bemba had sent 1,000 to 1,500 troops to the CAR to retain control of the border area with the Congolese province of Equateur in a war between his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and the then DRC leader Laurent Kabila, the father of the current president.

While there, the prosecution alleges that MLC militia brutally gang-raped men, women and children, and tortured and murdered civilians.

Bemba had argued before the court in January that MLC militia in the CAR had not been under his command when deployed to help put down a coup.

His lawyers told the court that the men were under the command of Ange Felix Patasse, the then CAR president, whose government provided their transport, fuel, money and uniforms, while Libya supplied the weapons and ammunition.

They claimed the case was part of a conspiracy to sideline Bemba politically.

But in their decision on Monday, the pre-trial judges said there was evidence that Bemba "actually knew about the occurrence of the crimes".

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