ICC prosecutors urge 25 years' jail for DR Congo militia chief

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War crimes prosecutors on Wednesday called for former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to be jailed for "at least 25 years" for a slew of rapes and murders in Central African Republic over a decade ago.

Bemba, who was found guilty in March on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is the highest-level person to face sentence at the International Criminal Court that was set up in 2002 to try the world's worst atrocities.

The former feared rebel leader sat stony-faced at the end of three days of hearings, as the ICC's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda rejected defence calls for a lesser jail term of between 12 to 14 years.

"The sentence recommended by the prosecution... should not be less than 25 years of imprisonment," she told the court based in The Hague.

Such a sentence would be justified by "the gravity of the offences committed by Mr Bemba and his degree of culpability" as the commander of militia troops who rampaged through part of CAR from October 2002 to March 2003.

After a lengthy trial which opened in November 2010, the judges convicted Bemba in March, agreeing he had retained "effective command and control" over 1,500 men he sent into CAR to quell an attempted coup against the then president.

His Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) carried out a brutal series of rapes and murders in a campaign of terror, which experts testified would have long-term traumatic effects on the victims.

The crimes were committed against "particularly defenceless victims" and "with particular cruelty," another prosecutor Jean-Jacques Badibanga told the court.

- 'Selective justice' -

Judges will pass sentence at a later date, but Bemba's defence team insisted that a 25-year term would fly in the face of jurisprudence set by other international tribunals which have tried and convicted military commanders.

They argued the prosecution had painted a false picture of Bemba who "became a sort of mythical figure for many, a god to be feared, a bogeyman", insisting it was an image that was "far from the reality".

Bemba "did not participate in the crimes. He was not standing there and encouraging his troops... Mr Bemba was not even in the same country," said defence lawyer Peter Haynes.

His "culpability arises from his failure to control a small fraction of his troops who were thousands of miles away".

Bemba is only the third person to be sentenced by the world's only permanent war crimes court -- and if he is jailed for 25 years, it would be its toughest penalty to date.

Former Congolese warlord Germain Katanga was sentenced last year to 12 years in jail for a 2003 attack on an Ituri village which left 200 dead.

Thomas Lubanga, another warlord and one-time adversary of Katanga, was jailed for 14 years in July 2012 for recruiting and enlisting child soldiers. Both men have since been transferred to Kinshasa.

Bemba's MLC, which has now morphed into the DR Congo's second-largest opposition party, reacted angrily to the call for a stiff sentence.

"It must be remembered that it was not Jean-Pierre Bemba who committed these crimes," MLC secretary general Eve Bazaiba told AFP, decrying what she called the ICC's "selective and discriminatory justice".

Prosecutor Badibanga insisted however that a lesser sentence would have the "absurd consequences" of seeing a more lenient term applied by the ICC than by national courts trying people for murder and rape.

After the conflict in CAR, Bemba, a wealthy businessman-turned-warlord, became one of four vice presidents in President Joseph Kabila's transitional government.

In 2006, he lost to Kabila in a presidential run-off. He fled the next year to Europe and was arrested in Brussels in 2008 and handed over to the ICC.

His defence lawyer vowed Bemba would never again head an army, or return to politics.