ICC overturns war crimes conviction of DRC's Bemba

Jean-Pierre Bemba in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague

The International Criminal Court overturned the war crimes conviction of former Democratic Republic of Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.

He was one of just four people convicted by the war crimes court in its 16-year history, Reuters notes, and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Bemba was transferred to the ICC in July 2008 and charged with three counts of war crimes - murder, rape, and pillaging - and two counts of crimes against humanity - murder and rape.

The Appeals Chamber also dismissed as moot the appeals that Mr Bemba and the Prosecutor had brought against the sentence Trial Chamber III had imposed.

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In 2002, the then CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé, had invited Bemba, who was the Movement of Liberation of the Congo (MLC) President and Commander-in-Chief, to the country to prevent a coup.

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.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called the appeal decision "regrettable and troubling".

But human rights group Amnesty International said it was a "huge blow" for the victims of a "horrifying campaign of rape and sexual violence", as it called on the authorities to redouble their efforts to prosecute those who had carried it out.

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Presiding judge Christine Van den Wijngaert on Friday, said the former vice-president and leader of the country's main opposition party could not be held responsible for crimes committed by troops under his control in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-2003. It was the first time ICC had focused on rape as a weapon of war, and the first time a suspect had been convicted for crimes committed by others under his command.

A crowd of hundreds of supporters cheered outside Bemba's party headquarters in the Congo capital Kinshasa, shouting "Our president is free!" and "Jean Pierre Bemba is our candidate!"

But the two dissenting judges wrote that the majority had used the wrong standards for review and that its findings were, therefore, deeply flawed.

Bemba was also tried separately, alongside his lead defence lawyer, Aimé Kilolo-Musamba, and his case manager, Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, as well as a member of the Congolese Parliament and a defence witness.

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Appeal judges also said he had been "erroneously" convicted for specific criminal acts.

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