By Thomas Verfuss
Former DRC vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba’s acquittal by the ICC Appeals Chamber in June had led to sleepless nights for staff of the Office of the Prosecutor, as tensions with victims in the Central-African Republic rose.
Some of the victims even threatened the court’s field office. The revelations emerged during an International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) event on the fringes of this year’s Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute at The Hague.
Bemba was acquitted at the appeals stage after the Trial Chamber initially convicted him for murder, rape and pillaging by his subordinates and sentenced him to 18 years in prison. Judges sitting on appeal of the decision took into account his “remoteness” in a different country and quashed the initial conviction under the doctrine of command responsibility.
More than 5,000 victims were registered as participants in the case, the highest number ever in an ICC trial. Lawyer Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson, who is Legal Representative of Victims in the Bemba case, went to see her clients in CAR after the acquittal. She heard statements like: “It is as if we are raped a second time.” The case in The Hague dragged on for more than 10 years after Bemba’s arrest in May 2008. During the time, the victims were kept informed about the proceedings. “You should have left us alone, we would already have forgotten that story,” some victims said in reaction to the acquittal.
The acquittal has also reinforced once again the cliché of the ICC as a conspiracy against Africans. “There would have been no acquittal if we had been nationals of another country,’’ some victims told Douzima. “We have been sacrificed for politics.” According to them, some western powers want to get rid of Congolese president Joseph Kabila, so they wanted to make sure that Bemba could stand against him in the presidential election later this year and put pressure on the court to acquit him. As it were, the electoral body in the DRC barred Bemba from contesting the election on the grounds that he still had a witness tampering conviction at the ICC.
Without a conviction, the $1 million reparations ordered by the Trial Chamber disappear in thin air. The Trust Fund for Victims reacted quickly after the June acquittal and announced that it would urgently help the CAR victims under its assistance mandate, which does not require a conviction. So far, nothing concrete has been done, said Paolina Massidda, the head of the Office of Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV). “We have a different notion of urgency. When you announce something, you have to have a concrete plan,” said the Italian lawyer. According to her, victims of sexual violence are in urgent need of medical and psychosocial assistance. Raped women have died as a consequence of the crime. And raped women find it difficult to bring up the stigmatized children who were born as a consequence of rape.
Fabricio Guariglia, the director of prosecutions at the OTP, the acquittal has led to sleepless nights for some staff members. The Bemba trial is one of the worst cases of sexual victimization he has seen in more than 20 years of practice in international criminal courts and tribunals.
The OTP was confronted with a loss of faith in the ICC and had to go through a painful process to get confidence back, especially from victims’ communities in the CAR, explaining that acquittals occur in courts and that they must be accepted, even if one disagrees: “This is how judicial systems work.”
For many years, Bemba was the only ICC suspect for crimes in CAR. In November, Alfred Yekatom, the leader of a predominantly Christian paramilitary group that allegedly tortured and murdered Muslims, was arrested and presented to the ICC. Investigations in the CAR are not without issues: access is difficult, and staff security is a problem. But Guariglia is confident that the OTP will be ready for the beginning of Yekatom’s confirmation of charges hearing in April 2019: “We have the evidence,” he added.