Judges on Wednesday sentenced former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to a year in jail and fined him 300,000 euros for bribing witnesses during his war crimes trial in an unprecedented case before the International Criminal Court.
“The chamber imposes on you an additional 12 months, one year, imprisonment,” presiding judge Bertram Schmitt told Bemba, adding a “substantial fine” was necessary “to discourage this kind of behaviour”.
Prosecutors had asked for eight years for Bemba, who is already serving 18 years after being convicted of war crimes by his marauding troops, who he sent into the Central African Republic in 2002 to 2003 to put down a coup against the then president.
In a separate trial, Bemba was found guilty in October of masterminding a network to bribe and manipulate at least 14 key witnesses, and had “planned, authorised, and approved the illicit coaching” of the witnesses to get them to lie at his main trial.
Speaking to AFP after Wednesday’s sentences were handed down to Bemba and four of his associates, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda these were “very serious crimes”.
“My own motivation was to show and send a strong and loud message that these kind of crimes … will be taken seriously by my office and something will be done about it,” she said.
Abuse of trust
Found guilty last year of bribery, the verdict and sentence are the first of their kind in the history of the ICC.
The heavy-set Bemba, 54, wearing a dark suit and light blue shirt, showed no emotion on Wednesday as the additional sentence was imposed by Schmitt in the heavily protected courtroom in The Hague.
The year-long sentence will run consecutively to his 18 years’ jail time.
Bemba’s lawyer Aime Kilolo received the heaviest sentence among four of the former vice president’s associates, handed two years and six months for “abuse of trust” as well as “abuse of the lawyer-client privilege”.
He was also ordered to pay a 30,000-euro ($32,000) fine.
Bemba’s legal case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda received two years; Narcisse Arido, a defence witness was given 11 months and Congolese lawmaker Fidele Babala was given six months.
All the sentences were well below what the prosecution had requested and none except for Bemba will spend any time behind bars, as the three-judge bench gave them credit for time already served in the ICC’s detention centre.
The judges also suspended Kilolo and Mangenda’s sentences for three years.
Bensouda said prosecutors will now “very carefully” study the sentence before deciding on the next steps, but added: “I’m not excluding appealing the decision.”
Bemba’s lawyer Melinda Taylor said her client would definitely appeal.
“Mr. Bemba was… sentenced on the basis of factual findings that are unsupported by direct evidence,” she said in a statement.
Witness protection key
Set up in 2002 to prosecute the world’s worst crimes where national courts are reluctant or unable to act, the ICC goes to great lengths to try to protect witnesses and its trials from any interference.
The charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice-president William Ruto had to be abandoned by the ICC due to a lack of proof amid allegations of serious witness tampering.
Bemba was sentenced in June 2016 to 18 years in jail on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed when his troops went on a rampage in neighbouring CAR between October 2002 to March 2003.
Once a wealthy businessman-turned-warlord, Bemba became one of four vice presidents in the transitional government of DR Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.
In 2006, he lost to Kabila in presidential elections and fled to Europe. He was arrested in 2008 in Brussels and handed to the ICC.