Jean-Pierre Bemba sentenced to 18 years in prison by the ICC

Former Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba looks up when sitting in the courtroom of the ICC to stand trial in The Hague, Netherlands.

Former DR Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was convicted to a sentence of 18 years imprisonment by the trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for rape and pillage committed by his troops, becoming the highest-level official to be sentenced at ICC.

"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 Central African Republic (CAR) in late October 2002 where they carried out "sadistic" rapes, murders and pillaging of "particular cruelty."

The conviction was the ICC’s first verdict to recognize rape as a weapon of war. It was also the first verdict to use the concept of “command responsibility,” in which both civilian and military superiors can be held criminally responsible for crimes committed by troops under their control.

The chamber noted that Bemba was a military commander with effective authority and control over the forces that allegedly committed the crimes yet he failed to stop them from committing these crimes and that any measures he might have taken to stop these attacks by his troops were grossly inadequate given the scale and gravity of the crimes.

This is a victory for sexual violence victims and a stark warning to senior commanders who turn a blind eye while their troops rape and commit other atrocities.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda praised the ruling saying, “I believe this is a very important day for international criminal justice, especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based crimes.”

The case was also historic because a record number of civilian victims – more than 5,200 – participated in the proceedings and may now be eligible for reparations.

Though the sentencing marked a critical turning point for the thousands of women, children and men who were victims of Bemba’s orchestrated campaign of rape and murder Mr. Bemba pledged to appeal the sentence, and supporters of his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) criticized the ruling. MLC Secretary General Eve Bazaiba told supporters, "We will never cease denouncing the selective justice of the ICC".