Former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has been arrested in Belgium for serious crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) six years ago. Bemba, a former Congolese vice president, has been in self-imposed exile from the DRC since April of last year when he fled the country. Although he continued to serve as a senator representing the capital Kinshasa, Bemba remained in Europe after charging that he and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo rebel group (MLC) were being targeted by the government of President Joseph Kabila. DRC Ambassador to the United Nations Christian Ileka says that the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges stem from alleged atrocities committed after former CAR President Ange-Felix Patasse had invited in Bemba’s MLC forces to help put down a coup plot.
“You will remember that some years ago, the MLC was asked by then-President Patasse to help him with his struggle with his own rebellion, and the forces of MLC went to Central Africa, and apparently, they did some gross violations of human rights according to what we have heard and what we have read,” he said.
In addition to the crimes human rights activists accused MLC rebels of committing in the CAR, Bemba and his northern Congolese fighters were singled out by opponents during his 2006 presidential campaign against Joseph Kabila with allegations of cannibalism for having eaten pygmies during the 2002 fighting. He denied the charges. The reasons why it took five years to prosecute him, according to Ambassador Ileka are complex, but stem from the criminal court’s involved process of carrying out the 2000 Rome statute that allowed foreign governments to pursue alleged war criminals living outside their countries and the nations where their alleged crimes were carried out.
“The Rome statute, according to the ICC, just went into force in 2002, I think. Actually, DRC was the sixtieth signatory. And then there were also all the procedures in putting in place the international tribunal. So that took a while. And most of the persons who had been arrested by the ICC are Congolese. And this is not beautiful looking for our country, but that is just how it is,” he said.
Pursuit of Bemba in order to send him to trial at the court in the Hague was begun a year ago by ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. His arrest comes after 14 months of self-imposed exile from the DRC, which he left in April, 2007 to travel to Portugal to seek medical treatment for a broken leg. Bemba has not returned home since then, voicing concerns for his personal safety. After insisting that he was being targeted by the Kabila government, Bemba has remained in Europe. Although he continues to hold a Kinshasa Senate seat that he won after losing a 2006 presidential election run-off to Kabila, he holds no immunity from being prosecuted for international crimes. Ambassador Ileka says the DRC is playing no part in the charges filed against Bemba and that the transfer from Belgium to the Netherlands court can be carried out if the charges hold up for prosecution.
“Bemba has been arrested upon request from the CAR, so the president, Bozize, requested the arrest, which the Belgian authorities did. I think that if I read the news correctly, what was presented to the Belgian prosecutor, who confirmed the arrest, and then the Belgian prosecutor has to wait until the ICC sends to Belgium all the needed files in order to know that at least he has to release him or to send him to the Hague,” he noted.
In an apparently separate development, the Kinshasa government has recalled its ambassador from Belgium to protest criticisms of Congo’s reform efforts that were made by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht. Belgium reportedly gives its former African colony about 315 million dollars in aid each year. DRC UN Ambassador Ileka says he believes the latest strains between Brussels and Kinshasa should not complicate any aspects of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s detention, prosecution, or transfer. However, the UN envoy says it is possible that Bemba’s case could take on an aura of celebrity equivalent to the attention being given to the ICC prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
“In my personal view, as to something like with Charles Taylor, we have some evidence regarding what he did in CAR. But then, all the things which were violations which were done during the rebellion in the DRC – for example, we have this history about eating human flesh of the pygmies and everything – everything will come up at a certain point. I think we will have some Congolese families who are going to file against Bemba for those things,” he pointed out.