Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Congolese warlord and Kabila foe

2 min 9Approximate reading time

Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose landmark conviction for war crimes was overturned on Friday by the International Criminal Court (ICC), is a former warlord and adversary of Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

Bemba, a 55-year-old former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), won an appeal against his conviction and 18-year sentence for rapes, killings and looting committed by his militia in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war -- and the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.

But appeal judges said the 2016 verdict had "ignored significant testimonial evidence" that Bemba had had only limited ability to intervene.

Bemba was born in Bogada in the northwest Equateur province of what is now the DRC.

His father was a rich businessman close to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled from 1965 until his ousting in 1997 and named the country Zaire.

Young Bemba was schooled in Belgium, DRC's former colonial power, and went on to take over family businesses, using his popularity in the capital Kinshasa to build his wealth and expand into sectors such as mobile phones, air freight and television.

A former business associate described the heavy-set, round-headed Bemba -- an imposing 1.90 metres (6 feet, 3 inches) tall -- as "too impulsive, too authoritarian" as a boss.

"The social side was not his strong suit," the source added.

Bemba left Kinshasa in 1997 when the late rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, father of current President Joseph Kabila, overthrew Mobutu and gave the country its current name.

A 1998-2003 war drew foreign armies on rival sides into the vast central African nation with fabulous mineral wealth.

Bemba became leader of the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) rebels, a 1,500-strong force backed by neighbouring Uganda and opposed to the Kabila regime.

- Life in the bush -

Bemba has spoken with pride of his years in the bush, where his men controlled Equateur province and the border region with the Central African Republic.

Bemba sent his fighters into the neighbouring CAR in October 2002 to help put down an attempted coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse, sparking a months-long campaign of horrific abuses by MLC troops against the civilian population -- the basis of the charges that would be laid against him in The Hague.

After the Congolese war ended in 2003, Bemba laid down his arms and was awarded one of four vice-presidential posts shared among wartime rivals in a transitional government.

In 2006, he lost a presidential run-off against Joseph Kabila, who had been rushed to power by politicians after the 2001 assassination of his father.

After the poll defeat, Bemba vowed to lead the opposition and was elected to the national Senate.

However, he refused to let his militia be integrated into the ranks of the regular army, insisting he needed the MLC to ensure his own safety.

In March 2007, an armed stand-off erupted into violence in Kinshasa, claiming at least 300 lives, according to the United Nations.

As the government brought charges and the courts began to move against Bemba, he quit the country, ostensibly to seek medical treatment in Portugal.

He left Kinshasa escorted by UN armoured vehicles on April 11, 2007. Until his arrest in Brussels in May 2008 on an ICC warrant, Bemba lived between Portugal and Belgium in what he called "forced exile", insisting he would yet return home to take up an opposition role.