By Thomas Verfuss in The Hague
Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was acquitted by the ICC Appeals Chamber in June 2018 after over 10 years in detention, is seeking at least 68.6 million euros from the court in compensation and damages.
The Congolese politician has also accused the ICC’s registry officials of presiding over the deterioration of his property upon seizure instead of managing it properly. In court papers filed by his lawyers on Friday, March 8, 2019, he is asking the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber for 22 million euros for the lost years of his life and the moral damage done, and 4.2 million euros for legal fees. But the largest chunk of 42.4 million euros is for Bemba’s frozen assets which the ICC registry allegedly left to “devalue, dissipate or simply rot”.
When Bemba, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was arrested in 2008 on charges of war crimes allegedly committed by his private militia in the neighbouring Central African Republic, the court asked Belgium, Portugal and the DRC to freeze his assets like airplanes, boats and villas. They could have served to pay reparations to the victims in case of a conviction. But instead of getting compensation, the victims would have ‘inherited a debt’, the defence claims, after a careful analysis by experts.
The defence cites as an example Bemba’s Boeing 727 which was ‘left to rot” for 10 years at Faro Airport in Portugal. No maintenance was done, and the plane was not used. “[Aeroplanes] become unflyable very quickly,” Bemba’s lawyer Peter Haynes QC, said at a press conference in The Hague on Monday. The British lawyer says that he has learnt a lot about aeroplanes since he has to deal with Bemba’s frozen property.
When Bemba wanted to lease out the plane to generate some income to pay for his legal fees, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor said it could not find the keys any more. The plane is now scrap. It still stands stranded at Faro airport and has been incurring parking fees for more than 10 years. After such a long time, the Portuguese authorities now consider the aircraft as imported into the country and want value-added tax to be paid. The total debt incurred by the plane now amounts to more than 713,000 euros.
The victims in whose name the freezing was done would have ‘inherited’ that debt in case of a conviction and a reparation award encompassing the plane. The defence quotes an internal ICC report to show the “complete lack of competence” of the ICC Registry to manage seized property. The defence filing before the pre-trial chamber cites a UN document to show that the ICC was obliged under international law to ‘protect and preserve’ the value of seized assets so that a ‘maximum return’ would have been realized for the victims in case of a conviction.
Bemba now wants to do something for the victims himself. If he gets the 22 million euro he asks for the more than 10 years spent in detention, he will liaise with the Trust Fund for Victims to make sure that the money benefits the victims of war crimes in the Central African Republic.
Bemba states that he has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice because the trial chamber that convicted him in the first instance in 2016, showed a “pattern of amateur mismanagement of the trial process” and “regularly demonstrated ignorance of basic principles of criminal law”.
The Rome Statute, the treaty that creates the ICC, provides that anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation. Article 85 of the Rome Statute further states that when a person has been convicted of a criminal offence, but the conviction has been reversed on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law, unless it is proved that the non-disclosure of the unknown fact in time is wholly or partly attributable to him or her.
Although the ICC has previously acquitted Matieu Chui Ngudjolo on December 18, 2012 – a decision upheld on appeal in February 27, 2015, the court ruled that his counsel failed to establish that he had suffered a grave and manifest miscarriage of justice and dismissed his claim for compensation. Bemba’s claim could trigger a similar application from former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, whose acquittal was ordered by the trial chamber on January 15, 2019. He is has ben conditionally released as prosecutors wait for the judges’ written decision in order to decide whether or not to appeal.
An ICC spokesman did not want to react to the allegations because the matter is before the judges now to be decided.