Freeing a Man Linked to War Crimes

What does the conditional release of an ex-Congolese warlord mean for the International Criminal Court?

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The ICC is ordering the conditional release of Jean-Pierre Bemba, politician of the

Democratic Republic of the Congo accused of war crimes

, stating somewhat counterintuitively that his "continued detention" is unnecessary to "ensure [his] appearance at trial." According to the Dutch news service NRC Handelsblad, Bemba’s lawyers attributed the ruling to the court's decision that the former vice-president was no longer suspected of having "personally committed atrocities."

Coverage of the trial has been thin in the English-speaking world, and opinions on it few and far between. "The work of despots in countries of less strategic importance than Iraq," wrote Christine Toomey in the London Times in 2003, "rarely receives much attention." The atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have, furthermore, received even less attention than those in Darfur. What is the significance of this trial, and what stands to be lost by Bemba’s release


Individual Criminal Responsibility  "Congo is the subject of one of the first investigations by the new International Criminal Court at the Hague," wrote Ishbel Matheson of the London Times in 2006, "and Bemba is squarely in the frame." Even in 2006, the question of "Bemba’s responsibility for his men’s conduct" was seen as being a likely problem in a prosecution. "At stake," wrote Matheson, "is a legal and moral principle that we all have an interest in defending—that of individual criminal responsibility." In a 2008 blog post, Lorenzo Wakefield of the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre noted that the Rwandan Jean Paul Akayesu had based his defense in the International Criminal Tribunal on not having personally raped Tutsi women. Bemba, he wrote, "goes a bit further and alleges that he did not order these crimes by his troops. That is where the possible next generation jurisprudence kicks in."

The Rule of International Law  The ICC prosecutor for the Bemba trial, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, recently made a strong case for the trial's importance in a New York Times op-ed. The mission of the ICC and the Rome Statute that brought it about, he declared, was to "transform the idea of ending impunity into a reality. During our first year, we found that the gravest crimes under our jurisdiction were committed in Uganda and Congo," where Bemba’s soldiers terrorized innocents. Despite the massive challenges facing an institution such as the ICC, Moreno-Ocampo saw "hope" in the Belgian arrest of Bemba "for his massive campaign of rape and pillage." The wider significance, he wrote, is clear: "decisions of the I.C.C. are felt well beyond the courtroom," and "can promote national justice efforts." And the significance of justice? "The law makes the difference between a soldier or a terrorist, a policeman or a criminal."

The Victims  Moreno-Ocampo pointed out that with the case of many ICC-sought individuals, "the victims do not have the luxury of time." The victims of Bemba's soldiers, The London Times Toomey reported in 2003, were raped, hacked into pieces, and forced to eat family members' organs. The BBC's Mike Thomson in late 2008 heard the story of a woman gang-raped while lying on the body of her dead husband, who had been shot before her eyes. The trial, Thomson wrote, gave such victims hope.

Central African Republic
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.