In a blow to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court and to victims of rape and murder in a conflict-ravaged African nation, appeals judges on Friday overturned the convictions of former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba for atrocities committed by his forces in Central African Republic.
"Mr Bemba can not be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by MLC troops during the Central African Republic operation", she said, reading the ruling of a 5-judge appeal panel. The court called a status conference in his case for June 12, which Bemba's lawyer called "unacceptable" given that the maximum sentence on that charge is five years and Bemba has already been jailed for 10.
He was accused of failing to prevent his rebels from raping and killing.
Judge Christine Van den Wijngaert said Bemba, once the leader of Congo's main opposition party, could not be held responsible for crimes carried out by troops under his control in Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda described the ruling as "regrettable and troubling".
"The decision to acquit Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is an important reminder that worldwide justice is only possible if all suspects receive stringently fair trials before an independent and impartial judiciary", Amnesty International's Solomon Sacco said in a statement Friday.
The judges said they had found an "apparent discrepancy between the limited number of crimes within the case's scope for which Mr Bemba was held responsible" compared to the assessment of his case.
Next to the understandable rage of the victims, there is another very important aspect: If Bemba is released soon, as is expected, he will actively take a hand in Congo's politics. Bemba - a militia leader, businessman and later, a failed candidate for the DRC presidency - had sent the more than 1,000 soldiers to help put down an attempted coup against the CAR's president at the time.
But the two dissenting judges wrote that the majority had used the wrong standards for review and that its findings were, therefore, deeply flawed.
At the time of his original conviction, judges said that women, girls and men were targeted by Bemba's forces, often with multiple soldiers raping women and girls in front of family members.
He was not released immediately on Friday because he has also been convicted of witness tampering, and an appeals judgment in that case is still pending.