The International Criminal Court (ICC) has reversed the conviction of the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity two years ago.
The appeals court at The Hague on Friday ruled in a majority opinion to acquit the former warlord, finding that Bemba had been erroneously convicted.
Bemba was convicted on March 21, 2016 of murder, rape and pillaging between October 2002 and March 2003, when militia troops of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), who were under his command were sent to neighboring Central African Republic to quell a coup attempt.
Prosecutors at his trial said Bemba knew that MLC forces under his authority and control were committing or were about to commit war crimes.
However, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC ruled that he could not be held responsible for crimes committed by his troops.
The judges said they had found an “apparent discrepancy between the limited number of crimes within the case’s scope for which Mr Bemba was held responsible” compared to the assessment of his case.
But the acquittal does not mean that Bemba will walk free.
Judge Christine Van den Wyngaert said he will remain in detention because of another case in which he was convicted of offenses “against the administration of justice.”
Human rights group Amnesty International said the ICC’s ruling was a “huge blow for the many victims” who had suffered during the war waged in the central African country.
“The decision to acquit Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is an important reminder that international justice is only possible if all suspects receive stringently fair trials before an independent and impartial judiciary,” Amnesty International’s Solomon Sacco said in a statement Friday.
“While the Appeals Chamber has held that Mr Bemba was entitled to an acquittal, the decision will be felt as a huge blow for the many victims of the ‘war against women’ waged in the Central African Republic through a horrifying campaign of rape and sexual violence, ” said Sacco, who heads the International Justice team at the organization.
Bemba led the MLC party in the Democratic Republic of Congo and later became one of the country’s four vice presidents in 2003 as part of a transitional government.
More than 5,200 victims participated in Bemba’s trial. He was arrested by Belgian authorities in May 2008.
Amnesty International said the victims who took part in Bemba’s trial will continue to seek justice.