International court: Ex-Congo VP must stay in jail

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2009 8:33 AM

International Criminal Court appeals judges on Wednesday reversed a decision to release the former vice president of Congo from custody, ordering him to stay in jail until he is tried for allegedly commanding a brutal militia.

The court in August ordered Jean-Pierre Bemba freed, saying he would otherwise spend too much time in custody after his arrest in May 2008.

But appeals judge Akua Kuenyehia ruled Wednesday there was a risk Bemba would flee if released.

"The potential length of sentence if he is convicted is a further incentive for him to abscond," Kuenyehia said. Bemba faces a possible lengthy prison sentence, although the court's statutes mention no maximum term.

Bemba did not react to the decision and said nothing at the brief hearing, but one of his lawyers told reporters they would continue to fight for his release.

"We expect this issue to be examined again by the pretrial judges," said attorney Aime Kilolo.

Bemba faces five counts of murder, rape and pillage for allegedly commanding a militia responsible for atrocities in the Central African Republic. That country's president at the time, Ange-Felix Patasse, had appealed to Bemba's militia for help in defeating a coup.

He has not entered a plea ahead of his trial, which is scheduled to start April 27 next year.

Bemba is the most senior political figure in the custody of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. He ruled a vast chunk of northeastern Congo during that country's 1998-2002 war, with support from neighboring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of the country's four vice presidents in a reunited Congo.

Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the court in The Hague in July 2008.

Also Wednesday, the court adjourned the trial of two Congolese warlords until Jan. 26, after one of the three judges hearing the case was hurt in a car accident.

The court refused to release any details of the accident involving Belgian judge Christine van den Wyngaert. The trial of Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga began last week on charges that they commanded fighters who massacred more than 200 villagers in eastern Congo in 2003.