On Jean-Pierre Bemba

Jean-Pierre Bemba is the head of an important political family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His political base is in the northwestern province of Equateur. His late father was a leading business entrepreneur during the administration of President Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1996). He founded the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) which began as a rebel group and evolved into a major political party.

During the interim period between the end of the great civil war in 2002 and the first democratic election in 2006, Bemba was one of four transitional vice presidents responsible for governing the country under President Joseph Kabila. He was an unsuccessful candidate for president in the election of 2006. A number of observers expressed the view that he was the real winner that year. The 2011 election was won by incumbent President Kabila under conditions that the international community considered deeply flawed. 

During the civil war that preceded the transition (1998-2002), Jean-Pierre Bemba was the commander of an armed militia that was fighting to maintain the territorial integrity of the Congo against a variety of foreign invaders. During this period of warfare, Bemba deployed his militia to the neighboring Central African Republic in support of the democratically elected President Ange Patasse who was resisting a military coup attempt in his country. During the time that Bemba’s militia was in the CAR, some of his fighters were accused of committing atrocities against local citizens. 

In 2008, the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, in the Netherlands, investigated the alleged atrocities committed by Bemba’s militia, and determined that the reports were accurate. As a result, Bemba, as the commander, was indicted for crimes against humanity. He was kept in custody in The Hague for eight years while the investigation and trial took place. In 2016, the Court declared Bemba guilty of failing to supervise and control his fighters who committed the atrocities. As of April 2016, a sentence has not yet been handed down.

Since it is clear that Bemba himself did not order his fighters to commit atrocities, and that he condemned these actions, and that he comported himself in a civilized way during his time as transitional Vice President of the Congo, I strongly believe that his punishment should be limited to the eight years that he has been in custody, and he should now be released. His “crime” was very far from the atrocities and other horrors ordered and condoned by other African leaders such as Charles Taylor in Liberia who is now in prison for a deserved long period.

Jean-Pierre Bemba has been sufficiently punished for not properly supervising his fighters. He should now be released to resume his political career in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.