News / Africa

War Crimes Trial for Congo's Former VP Opens at The Hague

The defense council of Congo's former VP Jean-Pierre Bemba, (Center back row) is seen in the courtroom of the ICC in The Hague, 22 Nov 2010
The defense council of Congo's former VP Jean-Pierre Bemba, (Center back row) is seen in the courtroom of the ICC in The Hague, 22 Nov 2010

Former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo Jean-Pierre Bemba went on trial before the International Criminal Court on Monday. He's charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities allegedly committed by his troops.

Speaking Monday before the trial began, chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the trial will decide whether a commander is legally responsible for atrocities carried out by troops.

"We at the prosecutor's office are not saying that Jean-Pierre Bemba committed the crimes personally - he raped no women. We are not saying he ordered. But, he did not control his troops and that is the responsibility of the commander," said Moreno-Ocampo.

Related video report by Mariama Diallo

Bemba has been charged with three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for murder, rape, and pillage allegedly committed by his rebel forces in the Central African Republic. He has pleaded not guilty.

Bemba was formerly vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the most senior political leader yet to face trial at the ICC. His defense has claimed the trial is designed to remove him from Congo politics.

Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner from Human Rights Watch says the fact that Bemba is not accused of committing the crimes himself makes the trial complicated - but also very important.

"It's an interesting trial from that perspective because it could provide some important jurisprudence in terms of what is does a military commander have to do to ensure that their troops do not commit these kind of crimes," she said.

The atrocities allegedly took place after Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo troops entered the Central African Republic in 2002 to help the country's president, Ange-Felix Patasse, put down a coup.

Mattioli-Zeltner says Patasse should also be held responsible for his role in the atrocities.

"Bemba was invited by the then president Patasse to intervene in the Central African Republic and help him put down the coup," Mattioli-Zeltner said. "So we believe there are other people who should be held responsible for the very serious crimes that happened at the time and if the evidence permits certainly we think that the then President Patasse should be brought to trial at the ICC."

Bemba's trial is the third to get under way since International Criminal Court opened in The Hague in 2002. Cases have been launched related to conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Uganda, and the Central African Republic.

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