Former business tycoon, warlord, vice-President and senator Jean-Pierre Bemba stands accused of widespread rapes and sowing terror. The International Criminal Court will start hearings Monday to determine whether there is enough proof to start a trial against the Congolese millionaire for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African republic.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) accuses Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (45) of leading Congolese rebels in a widespread campaign of rape and torture in the Central African Republic (CAR) between 2002 and 2003. He is the highest-profile suspect to date brought before the world's first permanent war crimes court in The Hague, set up in 2002.
This weeks hearings are designed to ensure that there is sufficient evidence to believe that Bemba is to blame for the crimes with which he has been charged. Following these hearings, the judges will make a decision whether Bemba will be actually tried. The hearings will take place from 8 to 12 January.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo is confident: "We cannot bring back those who were killed or died of aids after being violated, but I am hopeful that we will bring justice for the victims," he said last year.
Bemba was arrested in Brussels in May 2008. Although Belgian judges had sentenced him in absentia in 2003 to one year in prison for human trafficking, Belgium decided to transfer the former warlord to The Hague.
Bemba's militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), terrorised the Central African Republic with a campaign of looting, attacking civilians and widespread rape in 2002-2003. Unable to conduct its own war crimes prosecutions, the CAR government referred the ongoing atrocities to the Prosecutor of the ICC in 2004. The ICC investigations, which started in May 2007, focus on the most serious crimes in the CAR, particularly sexual violence.
Bemba was the first to be arrested over crimes in the Central African Republic. The court has not charged the millionaire with any crimes that his troops allegedly committed in the Congolese Ituri region.
Bemba's MLC-militia has been accused of numerous atrocities in northern Congo during the country's five-year war. During a 2002 military operation called "effacer le tableau" ("wipe the slate") in Ituri, MLC forces allegedly committed numerous crimes against civilians, including rape, summary executions, and looting.
Bemba tried 27 MLC leaders in 2003 in an ad hoc military court over allegations of killings, rapes and even cannibalism upon Pygmies and others. No one was convicted in the trials which were widely dismissed a 'whitewash' by Bemba to wipe out traces of his forces' human rights abuses.
The Central African Republic has suffered decades of armed revolts, coups and rebellions since it gained independence from France in 1960. The peak of violence from 2002-2003 was marked by a pattern of rape and other acts of sexual violence committed against hundreds of elderly women, young girls and men. The social impact is devastating, with many victims stigmatised and infected with HIV/AIDS.
But while much of the world's attention has been focused on Darfur and the DRC these days, the humanitarian crisis has not come to an end. The CAR has seen more than 300,000 people forced from their homes over the past three years, due to civil war and attacks by armed bandits. Violence is endemic with various rebel groups and government soldiers killing and raping in the villages they attack.
Also, another ICC war crimes suspect, Joseph Kony has been reported to be hiding in the CAR. His sectarian Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been also been accused of serious human rights abuses in the central African country.
Bemba's rise and fall
Jean-Pierre Bemba, an ethnic Ngwaka, spent his childhood between Brussels, Kinshasa and the small northern Congolese town of Gbadolite, known as "Versailles in the Jungle". This was the home and last safe haven of the late Congolese despot Mobutu Sese Seko.
Bemba, who became Mobutu's personal assistant in the early 1990s, soon managed to become one of the richest men in the DRC. But following the 1997 rebellion and takeover by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the multi-millionaire businessman fled to Uganda from where he took up arms with his rebel group the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).
In only a few months, the MLC managed to capture northern DRC in the civil war that raged the country from 1998 to 2003. Gbadolite, at the border with the CAR, became Bemba's headquarter.
In 2002 President Ange-Felix Patassé of the Central African Republic asked the rebel-turned Bemba to fight down a rebellion by former army chief of staff François Bozizé. A reign of terror shook the country when Bemba's MLC-militia took part in a campaign of looting, attacking civilians and widespread rape. The troops left the CAR in March 2003 when Bozizé took power after a coup.
Bemba laid down his weapons in 2003 and was elected one of the four vice-presidents within the Congolese transitional government until he put himself forward for the presidential election in 2006. He lost the run-off against Joseph Kabila but was elected senator in January 2007. After his militia and the army clashed in Kinshasa Bemba fled to Portugal because of treason charges.