|Jean-Pierre Bemba served as vice president in Congo.|
THE HAGUE — Congo’s former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of murder, rape, and pillage as his war crimes trial opened.
The chief prosecutor said the case of Bemba, who had been seen as a potential presidential candidate in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s next election, will define a commander’s legal responsibility to control his troops. The trial is only the third to get underway at the International Criminal Court since it began work in 2002, and Bemba is the most senior political figure in the court’s custody.
“The International Criminal Court’s decision will influence the behavior of thousands of military commanders’’ around the world, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told the three-judge panel.
Wearing a suit and tie, Bemba sat impassively with his arms crossed as his lawyer pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.
Prosecutors say Bemba, 48, allowed 1,500 members of his personal militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, to run amok in Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 after the country’s then-president, Ange-Félix Patasse, asked for the help of the force in an ultimately unsuccessful fight against rebels led by Congo’s former army chief of staff, François Bozize.
Moreno Ocampo said small gangs of Bemba’s troops systematically invaded homes to terrorize civilians, aiming to prevent them joining the rebellion.
“They stole all possessions that could be carried off and raped women, girls, elders regardless of their age. If the civilians resisted the rape or pillaging, they were killed,’’ he said.
Moreno Ocampo said that Bemba did not explicitly order the atrocities but ignored them, giving troops “license to attack civilians.’’
Bemba’s lawyers insist that he tried to investigate and prosecute officers responsible for the atrocities.