International war crimes judges Friday acquitted former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba on appeal, overturning an 18-year sentence for war crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR).
"Mr Bemba cannot be held criminally liable for the crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic," presiding judge Christine Van den Wyngaert told the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
"The Appeals Chamber in this instant reverses the conviction against Mr Bemba... and in relation to the remaining criminal acts it enters an acquittal," Van den Wyngaert said.
Bemba, 55, dressed in a blue-grey suit, light blue shirt and dark blue tie showed little emotion as the judge read the verdict, but his supporters exploded in cheers on the public gallery, prompting the judge to call them to order.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital of Kinshasa, Bemba's supporters erupted in joy as they watched the announcement on live TV, and cheering was even heard at the National Assembly, AFP reporters said.
In 2016, the ICC's judges had unanimously found Bemba -- nicknamed "Miniature Mobutu" -- guilty on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for abuses committed by his troops during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring CAR.
The heavy-set leader had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) -- a rebel force that Bemba later transformed into a political organisation -- into the CAR in October 2002 to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Felix Patasse.
At his sentencing in 2016, trial judges blamed Bemba for failing to stop a series of "sadistic and cruel" rapes and murders as well as pillaging by his soldiers.
The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war.
It was also the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.
- 'Erroneous conviction' -
But in a scathing assessment, the Hague-based ICC's appeal judges said Bemba was "erroneously" convicted for specific criminal acts.
Trial judges were also wrong in their finding that Bemba could in fact prevent crimes being committed by his MLC troops, they ruled.
"The trial chamber ignored significant testimonial evidence that Mr Bemba's ability to investigate and punish crimes in the CAR was limited," judge Van den Wyngaert said.
Bemba's lawyer Peter Haynes told journalists afterwards his client had been "vindicated."
The appeals judges' decision was "particularly significant because it's not some acquittal on a technicality. They went to the very heart of a commander’s culpability," Haynes said.
But the ICC's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called the acquittal "regrettable and troubling".
"Today's judgement does not deny that Mr Bemba's troops committed crimes which resulted in great suffering in the Central African Republic," Bensouda added.
Rights organisations also regretted the decision, with Amnesty International calling it a "huge blow to victims of the 'war against women' waged in the CAR through a horrifying campaign of rape and sexual violence."
- 'Immoral detention' -
Bemba nevertheless remains behind bars in a separate case in which he was sentenced to one year in jail for bribing witnesses and fined 300,000 euros ($350,000) during his main war crimes trial.
Bemba lost an appeal against that sentence, but the ICC still has to decide on a new jail sentence.
Judges will now meet Tuesday to discuss Bemba's continued detention, the ICC announced, saying "a decision will be made in due course."
Haynes said his client's continued incarceration was "unacceptable, immoral and may even be illegal."
Bemba had unsuccessfully opposed President Joseph Kabila in elections in 2006. After his militia clashed violently with government forces in 2007, he was forced out of the DRC but retains a groundswell of support.
His acquittal comes amid mounting tension in the runup to scheduled presidential elections on December 23.
Kabila was required to step down at the end of 2016 after he reached his two-term constitutional limit.
But a constitutional clause has allowed him to remain in office until his successor is elected. He has not stated whether he will run again, although the United States, France and Britain are appealing for him to step aside.
In Kinshasa, Bemba's supporters reacted with jubilation on Friday, buoyed by hopes of his return.
"Our leader, we await you," some chanted.
"I weep for joy. Jean-Pierre Bemba was a dead man. He has just been revived," one said.
Opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who lives in exile, also offered his congratulations.
"His acquittal shows that truth will always be triumphant. To those who resort to bogus trials, this decision marks the start of a new era" for the DRC, he said in a tweet.