Belgium’s foreign affairs ministry said on June 18 that it will provide “a favourable response” to a request from the International Criminal Court in The Hague that will allow Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to return home.
Bemba, 55, had been living in exile in Belgium prior to being charged in The Hague with war crimes and crimes against humanity a decade ago. Bemba’s wife and children are believed to still be living in the suburb of Rhode-Saint-Genese, 15km south of Brussels, where he was originally arrested in May 2008 at the ICC’s request.
A former warlord, he was convicted in 2016 of war crimes and sentenced to 18 years in prison after a militia he commanded committed mass murder and rape in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
But that conviction was overturned after appeals judges said they could not pin responsibility personally on Bemba for crimes that were committed by soldiers under his command. After his acquittal earlier in June, he was temporarily released from custody, but still faces charges related to cases where he bribed or intimidated witnesses.
The Democratic Republic of Congo opposition leader was the highest ranking official among the four people successfully prosecuted by the war crimes court since it was set up in 2002.
Suspects are often immediately released after an acquittal, but Bemba also faces sentencing for the separate charge of witness tampering during the trial. This could result in a maximum five-year jail term and a fine. The charge for tampering was brought to the court in November 2013, with prosecutors saying that Bemba should remain in custody until a final sentence is issued. The judges, however, rejected the motion.
Under the terms of his release, Bemba will be able to speak about his acquittal, but was ordered not to contact witnesses or discuss the ongoing case and must always inform the court of his whereabouts.
Bemba’s attorney has argued that his client has already spent a decade in jail and that the possible maximum five-year sentence for witness tampering would only add a few months prison time.
“It’s illogical that he would risk becoming a fugitive from justice for those three months,” Taylor said. Bemba signed a document accepting any conditions the judges might attach to his release, she said.
Asked about Bemba’s plans after being released, defence lawyer Peter Haynes said, “He’s never given up on his political ambitions … I’d be surprised if he can stay away from politics.”
If he were to return to DR Congo, Bemba would bolster opponents of longtime President Joseph Kabila before a December election. Kabila’s allies had indicated he might disregard term limits and stand for re-election, a suggestion that was rejected by Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala.
A final judgement on the witness-tampering case is expected in the Hague on July 4.