Acquitted of war crimes, Congo’s Bemba seeks release

The Hague – Lawyers for Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese ex-vice president whose war crimes conviction was successfully appealed last week have requested for his immediate release on Tuesday from the International Criminal Court.

Bemba, 55, has been in the International Criminal Court (ICC) detention centre since his arrest in 2008. The Democratic Republic of Congo opposition leader in 2016 was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

However the conviction was overturned on appeal last Friday, which was a major setback for prosecutors. The Appeals judges said they could not find or pin evidence and responsibility on Bemba for the killing and raping of civilians by soldiers under his command.

Bemba was the highest-ranking official the fourth person who had successfully been prosecuted at the permanent war crimes court since it was set up in 2002.

Defence attorney Melinda Taylor asked the panel of judges during a hearing on Tuesday for Bemba’s “imminent interim release to Belgium where his family resides”.

Judge Bertram Schmitt responded and said a decision will be made at least by Wednesday “at the latest”.

Usually the suspects is immediately released after an acquittal, but Bemba still faces a separate charge for witness tampering during the trial and if found guilty he could serve a maximum five-year sentence.

The charge was brought in November 2013 for tampering and prosecutors asked for the court to keep Bemba under custody until a final sentence is issued in that case.

But Taylor, Bemba lawyer argued that his client had spent a decade in jail and the possibility of a maximum five-year sentence for witness tampering could should be given a few months maximum.

“It is not logical that he would risk becoming a fugitive from justice for those three months,” Taylor said. Bemba signed a document accepting any conditions the judges might attach to his release, she said.

When released, Bemba is expected to leave the Netherlands for Belgium, where his wife and five children reside.

If he decided to return to Congo at any time this would instantly help opposition parties of longtime President Joseph Kabila ahead of a December presidential election. Kabila’s aides have indicated he might disregard term limits and stand for a third time.

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