Jean-Pierre Bemba (Bemba I)

Former Congolese vice-president and militia leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was convicted by the ICC in 2016 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic. Sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in 2016 and acquitted in 2018.
Case status: 
The ICC trial of former Congolese vice-president and militia leader Jean-Pierre Bemba concerned command responsibility for crimes committed by Bemba’s militia the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC) against civilians during the 2002-3 internal armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). The trial opened in November 2010, with Trial Chamber III convicting Bemba of murder, rape, and pillaging as war crimes and murder and rape as crimes against humanity in March 2016. Bemba was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in June 2016. In June 2018, Appeals Chamber acquitted Mr. Bemba from charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Congolese rebel militia suspected of grave crimes in CAR 

In late 2002, at the invitation of the then-Central African President Ange-Félix Patassé, MLC President and Commander-in-Chief Jean-Pierre Bemba formed a coalition with the CAR to oppose a coup led by the former chief-of-staff of the Central African armed forces. During the unsuccessful five-month operation in the CAR, MLC fighters went on a rampage of murder, rape and pillaging against civilians throughout the CAR. Prior to his arrest and surrender to the ICC in 2008, Bemba served as vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Murder charges added after arrest and surrender by Belgium

In May 2008, the ICC issued an arrest warrant charging Bemba with rape as a crime against humanity and rape and pillaging as war crimes. The following day Belgian authorities arrested Bemba, in the country at the time, and surrendered him to the ICC. In June 2008, Pre-Trial Chamber II added murder charges, constituting both crimes against humanity and war crimes. Although the Chamber granted Bemba’s temporary release in August 2009 pending the start of trial, the Appeals Chamber overturned that decision in December 2009. 

First ICC trial for command responsibility 

Opening on 22 November 2010, Bemba was the first ICC suspect prosecuted for criminal responsibility as a military commander. The prosecutor alleged that he knew or should have known that combatants effectively under his control were committing crimes, and that he failed to respond appropriately. Visits by Bemba to the CAR during the MLC operation, orders by radio, speeches to his troops referring to war crimes, correspondences on official reports of such crimes, and inadequate training of MLC troops or resort to available MLC tribunals were presented as evidence of Bemba’s effective command, of his knowledge of the crimes being committed, and of his failure to take responsible action. 


On 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III convicted Bemba of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Judges determined that the evidence demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that murder, rape, and pillaging had occurred as defined under the Rome Statute and that Bemba had effective authority and control over the direct MLC perpetrators. Judges further determined that Bemba showed disregard for international humanitarian law (IHL) during his operational command and failed to respond appropriately to reports of IHL violations. The trial resulted in the ICC’s first command responsibility conviction and first conviction for sexual and gender-based crimes.

In their verdict, ICC judges noted the essential role of non-governmental organizations, in particular the International Federation for Human Rights, in documenting MLC crimes in CAR and calling for the prosecution of those responsible.


On 21 June 2016, Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His sentencing per crime was as follows: 16 years for each murder conviction; 18 years for each rape conviction; and 16 years for pillaging as a war crime. Judges determined that the sentences would be served concurrently, resulting in the overall 18-year sentence, and that the eight years served in custody since his arrest would be deducted from that figure. During sentencing, the judges noted that the acts of rape were perpetrated under aggravating circumstances, as they were enacted with particular cruelty and against especially vulnerable victims. On 8 June 2018, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC found, by majority, that the Court’s Trial Chamber III had “erred on two important issues”, including the wrongful conviction of Mr. Bemba “for specific criminal acts that were outside the scope of the charges as confirmed” and decided to acquit Bemba on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


The Bemba trial faced challenges related to allegations of witness-tampering committed by Bemba’s defense team, including bribery and falsified evidence. The allegations resulted in offenses against the administration of justice charges for Bemba and four associates: a defense witness; a Congolese parliamentarian; and two senior members of Bemba’s defense team. Read more on the Bemba II trial. 


Record number of victims participating in ICC trial

At least 5,229 civilian victims—five of whom testified as witnesses—were authorized to participate in the Bemba proceedings, the highest number in the history of the ICC to that point. Under the Rome Statute, victims participating in ICC trials may receive reparations in the event of a guilty verdict. 

Witness testimony on sexual and gender-based crimes
The Bemba trial also involved more witnesses testifying to sexual violence than any other ICC case to that point. Of 40 prosecution witnesses, 14 testified about sexual violence. Nine of the 34 defense witnesses testified to their knowledge of rapes occurring or that they witnessed rape. In 2004 the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) published its policy on investigating and prosecuting sexual and gender-based crimes.