The International Criminal Court Tuesday sentenced former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in jail, handing down its toughest penalty ever for "sadistic, cruel" rapes and murders by his troops in Central African Republic.
"The chamber sentences Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to a total of 18 years of imprisonment," said judge Sylvia Steiner as the once feared rebel leader, who has denied all culpability, sat in the courtroom, showing no emotion.
Steiner said the former militia leader had failed to exercise control over his private army sent into CAR in late October 2002 where they carried out a series of rapes, murders and pillaging of "particular cruelty."
Bemba, dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, is the highest-level official to be sentenced by the ICC after being convicted in March on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And he is only the third person to be sentenced at the tribunal based in The Hague since it began work in 2002. The other two got sentences of 14 and 12 years.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose office had asked for 25 years in jail, told AFP Bemba's sentence was "very significant".
"It is sending a very strong signal to commanders that they will be held accountable for the crimes that their troops commit in the field, especially when they had the ability and control to stop it and did not," she said.
The atrocities were carried out by Bemba's private army, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), when some 1,500 troops unleashed a five-month campaign of terror in CAR to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
"Entire families were victimised" and the number of victims was "substantial" as poorly paid MLC troops "self-compensated through acts of rape," the judge said.
Some men and women were raped repeatedly by as many as 20 soldiers. Others were shot point blank for refusing to hand over a motorbike or a sheep.
- Bemba 'disappointed' -
Bemba's defence team has already filed notice that it intends to appeal, and argued he should be released immediately as he has been behind bars since his arrest in 2008.
Bemba was "extremely disappointed" with Tuesday's sentence, his lawyer Kate Gibson told AFP.
"Today's sentence is by no means the end of the road for Mr Bemba," she added, saying they would now move to the appeal phase.
Bemba's case was the first at the ICC to focus on rape as a weapon of war and the first to highlight a military commander's responsibility for the conduct of the troops under his control.
While the judges handed down sentences of 16 years for the crimes of murder, they ordered Bemba to serve 18 years for the counts of rape. The terms will be served concurrently -- and Bemba is entitled to have his total time behind bars reduced for time already served.
Judge Steiner said Bemba had done "more than tolerate the crimes as a commander".
"Mr Bemba's failure to take action was deliberately aimed at encouraging the attacks directed against the civilian population," she said, adding he had had all the necessary means to stop his troops.
ICC chief prosecutor Bensouda said she and her team would study the sentence before deciding whether to appeal.
She highlighted that "rape as a war crime and crime against humanity has received a higher sentencing than the crimes of murder or pillaging."
"So the judges are also showing by this sentence that they are aware of the seriousness of the problem," Bensouda told AFP.
- 'Justice for victims' -
Bemba, a rich businessman who became one of the vice presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was arrested in Brussels in 2008 after losing a bid for his country's presidency.
In a swift reaction, Human Rights Watch said on Twitter that it welcomed the sentence saying it "offers a measure of justice for victims of sexual violence."
And an alliance of rights groups, FIDH, said: "The ICC has finally spoken, loud and clear: Sexual violence in armed conflict cannot go unpunished."
But Bemba's MLC, which has now morphed into a major Congolese opposition party, lashed out at what it called "selective justice".The International Criminal Court sentenced to 18 years in prison former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba convicted of a slew of rapes and murders in Central African Republic over a decade ago. "The chamber sentences Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to a total of 18 years of imprisonment," said judge Sylvia Steiner, ruling that the former militia leader had failed to exercise control over his private army sent into CAR in late October 2002 where they carried out "sadistic" rapes, murders and pillaging of "particular cruelty."