By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Court on Tuesday for heading a 2002-03 campaign of rape and murder in neighboring Central African Republic.
Bemba, a former Democratic Republic of Congo vice-president, is the first person that the global war crimes court has held directly responsible for his subordinates' crimes.
Judge Sylvia Steiner said troops from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which Bemba directed, had acted with "particular cruelty" when they rampaged through the neighboring country in support of then-president Ange-Felix Patasse.
One victim had described how, still a virgin, she had been raped in front of her father while other soldiers held the father at gunpoint.
"After the attacks, some parents found their daughters lying on the ground crying and bleeding from their vaginas," Steiner said, describing as an aggravating circumstance the fact that victims had been "particularly defenseless".
Bemba had armed his troops and then paid them so little that they were spurred to pillage, Steiner said. He had made only token attempts at disciplining them, in order to deflect international attention the crimes were drawing.
Bemba, who did not speak at the hearing, received three sentences of 18 years for rape and pillage and two of 16 years for murder, all of which will be served concurrently.
The son of a businessman who became rich during years of close association with former Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko, Bemba entered government under current President Joseph Kabila in 2003 as part of a power-sharing deal that ended years of civil war.
Originally a rebel force in Congo's northwest, the MLC is now CAR's second-largest opposition party, and Bemba retains a significant following in the West. He can appeal his conviction and sentence.
Eve Bazaiba, secretary general of Bemba's MLC party, criticized the court's ruling. "We will continue and we will never cease denouncing the selective justice of the ICC," she told a few hundred supporters in Kinshasa.
But Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the sentence offered a measure of justice for victims of sexual violence in Central African Republic.
"Other commanders should take notice that they, too, can be held accountable for rapes and other serious abuses committed by troops under their control," she said.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam and Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Editing by Dominic Evans)