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Former DRC Warlord Brought Before ICC Amid Doubts

Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba has made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. He is being charged with war crimes committed by his fighters in the Central African Republic. While many human rights activists and legal observers applauded the development, others questioned the processes of the ICC. From our West Africa and Central bureau in Dakar, Brent Latham has more.

Bemba left his cell in a suburb of The Hague to make his first appearance before judges of the international court on Friday.

The former warlord is accused of murder, rape, torture and pillaging. The charges stem from Bemba's role in defending then President Ange-Felix Patasse in a coup attempt in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

Bemba, who himself lost to Joseph Kabila in the DRC presidential election in 2006, was transferred to The Hague Thursday from Brussels, where he was arrested in May. Belgian authorities were executing a secret international arrest warrant for Bemba.

He says he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and is ready to defend himself in court.

Many observers hailed Bemba's arrest as a victory for justice, and retribution for the victims of Bemba's marauding militia.

Ibrahim Kane, London-based African Advocacy Director for the Open Society Institute, said that there is little doubt as to Bemba's guilt.

"Nobody will say Bemba is not guilty of human rights violations or that Bemba, with Patasse when he was president, decided to organize the killing of many, many people," said Kane. "So seeing Bemba taken to the ICC for us is not really surprising."

Bemba, who has been in exile in Portugal since April of last year, is still an elected senator in the DRC.

Representatives of Bemba's Congo Liberation Movement party have condemned the proceedings at the ICC. In a statement after Bemba's arrest, the party said that they "regret the politicization of the judicial process undertaken by the International Criminal Court prosecutor."

Kane said that such criticisms are at least in part valid. He said he also wonders why only Bemba has been implicated thus far.

"For now the only person who is on the spot is Bemba. So that's one problem," he said. "The second problem is that Bemba is also a politician and in the DRC an important politician."

Kane says there is growing criticism, especially from Africans, of the lack of transparency in the procedures used to determine who will be brought before the ICC.

Kane worries that the ICC might be too political. He says this case demonstrates that concern, because Bemba was Kabila's chief rival as recently as the past election.

"Politicization of the ICC for us is the big problem," Kane said. "Unless the court gives us more information on who are the other people associated with Bemba's indictment, it will be difficult not to link up the Bemba arrest and the political situation in the DRC."

Bemba's political party has also said the case is being used to "drown" political opposition in the DRC.

Kane further questioned why only Africans had been brought before the court thus far.

The ICC was established by the Rome Statute in 1998, and began hearing cases in 2002.

The court's head prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo welcomed Bemba's arrival, promising justice for victims of crimes committed in the Central African Republic. He said even though Bemba is a senator, he has no immunity in front of the ICC.

He also thanked Belgian authorities for the arrest, and said the case exemplifies worldwide cooperation to end impunity.