More than two years after an international tribunal convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen those convictions overturned on appeal.
The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court ruled Friday that the lower court decision had "made serious errors" when it found Bemba responsible for the violent crimes his militia carried out in the Central African Republic in the early 2000s. That original verdict, rendered in March 2016, had determined that Bemba "failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress the commission of crimes by his subordinates."
During unrest in the CAR between October 2002 to March 2003, troops with Bemba's Congolese Liberation Movement, or MLC, were found to have committed "the crimes against humanity of murder and rape and the war crimes of murder, rape and pillaging." Bemba — a militia leader, businessman and later, a failed candidate for the DRC presidency — had sent the more than 1,000 soldiers to help put down an attempted coup against the CAR's president at the time.
And the court found that Bemba bore the bulk of the responsibility for their actions. He was one of just four people convicted by the war crimes court in its 16-year history, Reuters notes, and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
But a majority of appeals judges decided Friday that the verdict did not fairly account for Bemba's efforts to stop his troops' crimes once he became aware of them — and that since he was acting as a remote commander, his power to do so was limited.
"Mr Bemba cannot be held criminally liable ... for the crimes committed by MLC troops during the CAR operation," reads the judgment's summary.
The decision was met with a mix of frustration, cheers and concern for what this spells for Central Africa's political future.
"While the Appeals Chamber has held that Mr Bemba was entitled to an acquittal," said Solomon Sacco, head of Amnesty International's international justice team, "the decision will be felt as a huge blow for the many victims of the 'war against women' waged in the Central African Republic (CAR) through a horrifying campaign of rape and sexual violence."
Bemba's supporters back in the DRC, meanwhile, celebrated the decision as a vindication. Reuters reports "a crowd of hundreds of supporters cheered outside Bemba's party headquarters in the capital, Kinshasa, shouting 'Our president is free!' and 'Jean Pierre Bemba is our candidate!' "
The mention of candidacy raises the specter of a renewed rivalry between Bemba and the man who defeated him in that 2006 election, DRC President Joseph Kabila, who has spent 17 years in power. Congolese residents have increasingly pressed for him to step down, even gathering protests that Kabila has responded to with violence in recent months.
It remains unclear whether Bemba intends to return to the country after his release.
But what is clear is that this release will not be immediate: He was also convicted of a separate charge, witness tampering, and his appeal of that verdict remains in process.