The long-awaited trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, the Congolese militia leader and former politician arrested in 2008 and charged with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity, began today at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Bemba, the most senior figure in ICC custody, is accused of being responsible for appalling acts of violence committed by his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) during a five month period in 2002-3. Bemba and his militia were invited to the CAR by then-president Ange-Félix Patassé to help suppress a rebellion and coup attempt by Patassé’s former army chief of staff, François Bozizé, however MLC troops – around 1,500 strong – soon went ‘from house to house’ in civilian areas, raping and pillaging and killing those who were sympathetic to Bozizé, says the lead ICC prosecutor. Nearly 400 rapes have been recorded so far with 1,335 people coming forward as victims of the brutal intimidation campaign.
Bemba subsequently became one of four vice-presidents in the DR Congo in a 2003 power-sharing arrangement, while Bozizé, president of the CAR following the successful coup, asked the ICC to investigate the violent events of the previous year. After hundreds were killed during clashes between Bemba’s militia and government forces following an unsuccessful bid for president in 2006, Bemba fled into ‘forced exile’ in Portugal and Belgium in April 2007 and was arrested in Brussels in May 2008 under an ICC international warrant.
Court procedural issues and an appeal by Bemba’s defence team have since delayed the beginning of the trial, which marks the third held by the ICC since its creation roughly eight years ago and the first to give primary attention to the issue of ‘command responsibility’. This concerns the idea that military commanders are responsible for criminal acts perpetrated by the soldiers under their control, if the commander ‘either knew or, owing to the circumstances at the time, should have known that the forces were committing or about to commit such crimes’. Bemba’s legal team claims he was not in control of his forces once they moved across the border and that CAR officials are ultimately responsible for whatever actions occurred. According to an official in the ICC prosecutor’s office, the trial will be ‘the first time in the history of international justice that a military commander is on trial on the basis of indirect criminal responsibility for rapes committed by his fighters.’
The openSecurity verdict: There are a handful of observers who believe that the Bemba trial is unfair. Many such opinions come from within the Congolese community in Brussels, who view Bemba as a hero who tried to wrestle the DRC away from the ‘autocratic’ grip of the incumbent president Kabila in the 2006 election. Others such as Koen Vidal, a Congo expert at the Belgian newspaper De Morgen, acknowledge Bemba’s guilt and complicity in the crimes but question why the court has decided to target only him: ‘He was at the helm of the military apparatus which was guilty of serious human rights abuses in the Congo as well as the CAR’, but, he asks, ‘why is Bemba at the tribunal, and not all the other warlords?....There should be many more people in there’.
While this is true, the arrest and trial of Bemba, a former high-ranking government official, sends a powerful signal to those military leaders around the world who believe using rape as a weapon of war will be unpunished. As the ICC prosecutor states, ”Military commanders who let their men rape must know that they can be prosecuted,” even if they are far removed from their soldiers on the ground’.
Yet the Bemba case, along with that of Thomas Lubanga, another Congolese rebel leader involved in an ongoing trial at The Hague, has highlighted the often sluggish pace of the court. Bemba has been sitting in an ICC jail cell for two years while the court has altered the number and types of charges leveled against him. Originally he was charged with three counts of crimes against humanity and five war crimes, however three counts were not confirmed in the Pre-Trial Chamber. ICC judges also tweaked the nature of the charges from those of individual responsibility to command responsibility. Months of ‘legal wrangling’ occurred, during which Bemba denied the jurisdiction of the court and appealed decisions.
For the sake of justice, it is hoped that Bemba’s trial proceeds more smoothly than that of Lubanga, which has been plagued by an ‘unacceptably slow pace and numerous missteps’ and is now in danger of unraveling entirely, as claims surfaced recently that researchers for the prosecution fabricated evidence. The trial has been called a ‘nightmare’.
New evidence appears to connect Hezbollah to Hariri assassination
In an extensive investigation published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on Sunday, new evidence has emerged which appears to directly link some Hezbollah members to the death in 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The CBC report documents an investigation by the UN International Independent Investigation Commission and a Lebanese police officer, who uncovered vast amounts of phone records suggesting that Hezbollah members were regularly contacting the cell phones which were used to remotely set off the bomb that killed Hariri.
The circumstantial evidence has been given to the UN Special Tribunal, fueling rumors that a UN prosecutor will hand down a judgment against Hezbollah members ‘by the end of the year’. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, continues to deny responsibility for the assassination.
Al-Qaeda propaganda magazine boasts of recent parcel bomb scare
An article in the latest edition of ‘Inspire’, a propaganda magazine thought to be published by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, boasts of the recent parcel bomb plot, which, it says, ‘succeeded in achieving its objectives. We thank Allah for His blessings’. The issue of the magazine, which appeared over the weekend, appears to emphasize the value of smaller, simpler and cheaper terror operations, while still acknowledging the power of large-scale 9/11-type attacks.
The article continues, ‘It is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect….We have struck against your aircrafts twice within one year and we will continue directing our blows towards your interests and the interests of your allies.’ The author labels this a ‘strategy of a thousand cuts’.