The Hague, Netherlands | AFP |
International judges on Wednesday found former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and four close aides guilty of bribing and corrupting witnesses in a bid to derail his landmark war crimes trial.
The case was “about the clear, and downright criminal behaviour of the five accused… that resulted in serious offences against the administration of justice,” judge Bertram Schmitt told the International Criminal Court while handing down the verdict.
“No legal system in the world can accept the bribing of witnesses, the inducement of witnesses to lie or the coaching of witnesses,” he told the five men, who were all present in the court in The Hague.
Each of the men stood in turn and remained impassive as Schmitt pronounced them guilty of most charges, although there were acquittals on some of the lesser charges against two of the defendants.
“Today’s judgement sends a clear message that the court is not willing to allow its proceedings to be hampered or destroyed,” Schmitt said.
And he further warned that those who sought to undermine the court would “not go unpunished”.
Prosecutors charged that from his prison cell, the ex-rebel leader Bemba masterminded a network to bribe and manipulate at least 14 defence witnesses to lie during his trial at ICC based in The Hague.
Bemba was sentenced in June to 18 years in jail on five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his militia in Central African Republic.
Once the powerful leader of the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) and a wealthy businessman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bemba, 53, remains behind bars in The Netherlands and is appealing his sentence.
Wednesday’s verdict came after Bemba was charged along with two of his lawyers, an MP from his party, and a defence witness of seeking to influence the main trial.
It was the first such corruption trial in the ICC’s history, and was launched after a tip-off to the prosecutors office.
Bemba’s lawyer Aime Kilolo, his legal case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda, Congolese lawmaker Fidele Babala and Narcisse Arido, a defence witness were in the dock alongside the former Congolese strongman.
All five had pleaded not guilty to more than 100 combined charges. Sentencing will be at a later date.
During the corruption trial, which opened last year, prosecutors provided evidence of telephone recordings, records of money transfers, emails and text messages which laid out the men’s plan.
Bemba had authorised the scheme, the judge said, while Kilolo implemented his instructions and “coached” witnesses about what to say on the stand in return for money.
Mangenda tried to conceal the plan while Babala, deputy secretary of Bemba’s MLC party, handled money transfers.
Arido, who was an expert defence witness on military operations in the Central African Republic, also recruited witnesses for the defence and helped to coach them.
The defence, however, had argued that the telephone recordings had been misinterpreted and insisted there was nothing wrong in paying witnesses as the prosecution did.
Bemba’s lawyer Melinda Taylor added that since he had been in detention he was “not in a position of power and had no effective access to information about what was going on the ground”.