PARIS — The International Criminal Court convicted a Congolese politician, Jean-Pierre Bemba, of war crimes and crimes against humanity Monday, finding him culpable for a devastating campaign of rape, murder, and torture in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
A panel of three judges convicted Bemba of murder and pillaging and defined the large-scale rape by his soldiers as a crime against humanity and as a war crime.
Other international courts, including the UN tribunals for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, have issued convictions for rape as a war crime and a crimes against humanity, but Monday was the first time the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, has done so.
Largely because of pressure from human rights advocates and women’s groups, organized or mass rape is increasingly being recognized and prosecuted as a weapon of war, not as a byproduct of it.
The conviction of Bemba — who was far from the battleground while his militia committed its crimes — was noteworthy in a second respect: It was the first time the court has applied the principle of command or superior responsibility. The judges found that Bemba was culpable for having “failed to prevent” the crimes committed by his subordinates and for doing nothing to punish the offenses.
The judges on the panel were all women. The presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner of Brazil, read a summary of the verdict, noting such crimes as the gang rape of women and girls as young as 10. Some were assaulted in the presence of family members and other children, she said.
Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the verdict “offers a stark reminder to commanders — military and civilian — that they are responsible for preventing and halting any attacks by their forces on civilians and for punishing violators.”
She said the case also highlights the use of rape as a weapon of war, and she called for additional prosecutions of war crimes perpetrators in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bemba is only the third person — but the most senior — to be found guilty in the history of the court, a tribunal that opened in 2002 to deal with large-scale atrocities. The others were Congolese warlords: Thomas Lubanga, convicted in 2012, and Germain Katanga, found guilty in 2014, each in connection with atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, praised the verdict but said, “Much remains to be done to ensure justice for the many other terrible crimes that have been committed in CAR since 2002, not least the large-scale violations and abuses committed over the past three years.”
A millionaire businessman from a prominent family, Bemba was vice president before going into exile after losing a 2006 election. His arrest in 2008, during a visit to Belgium, was a shock in Congo. Many Congolese had regarded him as untouchable. Bemba tried, without success, to claim diplomatic immunity.
Prosecutors say that Bemba sent 1,500 members of his Congolese militia into the neighboring Central African Republic, in late 2002 and early 2003, to help put down a military coup there.
The case was notable in part for its focus on rape, which the prosecution said was a main part of the militia’s strategy. Fighters raped not only women and girls in front of their families, but also men and important elders to publicly debase them, prosecutors said.
Defense lawyers argued that Bemba had no authority over the militia and that it followed the army of the Central African Republic once it left Congo.
The trial of Bemba began in November 2010, but the proceedings were delayed — notably by an investigation that led to separate charges against Bemba and four associates that they had tried to bribe witnesses to get them testify in Bemba’s favor at his war crimes trial. Closing arguments were delivered in November 2014.