KINSHASA - The International Criminal Court in The Hague sentenced former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in prison for the murder, rape and pillaging committed by his troops in Central African Republic more than a decade ago.
For victims and rights campaigners, Bemba's sentencing is cause for celebration. Not so at his party headquarters in Kinshasa.
Approximately 200 dispirited supporters watched a YouTube broadcast on a projector as the ICC handed down its ruling.
Bemba's supporters said the ruling is a miscarriage of justice.
Following expressions of party solidarity from the crowd, Eve Bazaiba — the secretary general of Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo, or MLC — took the microphone to denounce what she called the ICC’s unfair targeting of Africans.
The MLC grew out of the rebel army that Bemba commanded during the DRC civil war. Bemba was not convicted for any abuses in his home country.
Between October 2002 and March 2003, Bemba sent his troops into neighboring Central African Republic to put down a coup attempt for that country's president.
In its verdict delivered in March, the ICC found Bemba responsible for abuses committed by his troops during that campaign in the Central African Republic.
It was a historic ruling on the principle of command responsibility, but one that has been poorly understood by Bemba's supporters, who say their beloved leader was rarely present in the Central African Republic during the five months in question.
MLC activists claim Bemba was targeted by the court to remove him as a rival to President Joseph Kabila.
Bemba served as vice president from 2003 to 2006. He finished second in the 2006 presidential elections against Kabila, winning 42 percent of the vote.
The MLC has remained a leading opposition party.