PARIS - The International Criminal Court ruled Tuesday that former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba be released immediately, following his stunning acquittal last week by appeals court judges at the Hague-based tribunal. Bemba still faces sentencing on separate charges of witness tampering, but his freedom may upend presidential elections in Democratic Republic of Congo that are scheduled for December.
Judge Bertram Schmitt was clear to separate the question of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s release from a separate case at the International Criminal Court in which he awaits sentencing for witness tampering.
“The chamber emphasizes again that the current status conference solely concerns Mr. Bemba’s continuing detention while he waits the renewed determination of his sentence,” said Schmitt.
Bemba faces up to five years in jail and a fine in the witness tampering case, which he lost in appeals.
But he won a major victory last Friday in the main case against him. ICC appeals court judges overturned convictions against him for atrocities committed by his MLC forces in the Central African Republic in the early 2000s.
In a three-to-two decision, they said Bemba could not be responsible for their actions, some of which took place when he was the DRC’s vice president.
Bemba’s lawyer Melinda Taylor argued he should be immediately freed pending sentencing in the witness tempering case, and that he did not present a flight risk.
“The fact that Mr. Bemba has been detained for over 10 years in total, and has served 4.5 times his initial sentence is itself a special circumstance that militates in favor of his release,” she said.
But prosecution lawyers argued Bemba’s witness tampering conviction rules out any near-term release.
The overturning of Bemba’s main conviction is a major setback to ICC prosecutors. He was the highest ranking official the court convicted since it began operating in 2002.
The associate director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, Elise Keppler, says the ruling raises broader questions about the ICC’s credibility and effectiveness, and may shock those who survived the C.A.R. violence.
“The real loss here is that we are now in a situation where victims of the crimes in 2002 and 2003 in the Central African Republic are left with any redress,” said Keppler.
Bemba’s lawyers say he wants to join his family in Belgium, but his legal fate may also play into the DRC’s elections.
Bemba was once was President Joseph Kabila’s main rival.
“Time will tell, but this is obviously going to have big reverberations in Congo’s political scene,” said Keppler.
Despite his detention, Bemba came in third in a recent presidential preference survey in the DRC.