Lawyers for former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba Tuesday slammed his conviction for war crimes, accusing judges of “prejudice” and calling for the judgement to be scrapped.
Bemba, 55, is appealing an 18-year jail term handed down by the International Criminal Court in June 2016 after judges found him guilty on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in atrocities committed by his troops in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Once the powerful leader of the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) and a wealthy businessman, the court said Bemba had failed to stop a series of rapes and murders by his soldiers in the CAR in 2002 and 2003.
But Bemba’s lawyer Peter Haynes told a hearing at the Hague-based ICC that trial judges chose to ignore much of the evidence presented by the defence.
“A hatchet was simply taken to the defence case,” Haynes told the five appeals judges.
“The trial chamber’s approach to evidence was unbalanced. For no articulated reason, the trial chamber ignored important evidence on central issues,” Haynes said.
This included the testimony of a retired senior French military officer, Brigadier-General Jacques Seara, who told judges that Bemba was not in command of his troops when they carried out the crimes.
Seara’s evidence was totally dismissed by the judges “notwithstanding his wealth of experience which entitled him to give evidence,” Haynes said.
“Simply put, the trial chamber deviated so substantially from the essential conditions of a fair trial that prejudice must be presumed,” he said.
“No trial judgement can be allowed to stand in such circumstances.”
But prosecutor Helen Brady told the hearing the trial judges’ verdict should stand.
“The defence hasn’t met the first hurdle. They haven’t shown why this decision must be overturned,” Brady told the judges.
“In short, Mr Bemba had a fair trial and his… ground of appeal should be dismissed,” she said.
Bemba’s case which opened in November 2010 was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war, and the first to underline a military commander’s responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.
In an appeal filed before the court, Bemba’s lawyers however said the judges’ “findings on effective control fall far outside established military doctrine and practice”.
Bemba’s trial “invented a theory of command responsibility which is a military impossibility,” his defence team said.
In a separate trial, Bemba was also sentenced in March last year to one year in jail and fined 300,000 euros for bribing witnesses during his main war crimes trial.
Bemba is expected to address the hearing, due to last until Monday.