Supporters of ex-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba accused the International Criminal Court (ICC) of “politicization” of its remit on Sunday amid moves to extradite him on war crimes charges.
Belgian officials arrested 45-year-old Bemba late on Saturday in a Brussels suburb on four charges of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity — the first indictment by the court over unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR).
One of four vice-presidents in a transitional Congolese government between 2003 and 2006, Bemba led the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) rebel group, which later became the country’s main political opposition party.
MLC secretary-general Francois Muamba read out a statement on Sunday which accused the ICC of politicizing its remit, calling for Bemba’s immediate release.
The group’s leaders said they had to “note, with regret, the politicization of judicial proceedings initiated by the ICC prosecutor.”
Muamba asked why former CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse and his military chief of staff, “who benefited from the reinforcements brought by MLC troops,” were not themselves under arrest.
MLC deputy head Francois Muamba said: “We didn’t expect this. It’s a nasty surprise.”
In 2002, Bemba’s group was asked by Patasse to help put down a coup attempt, but once that was achieved, the 1,000-strong MLC force was accused of installing a reign of terror.
After Patasse was ousted in 2003, the new government under his successor asked the ICC to intervene.
A statement by the ICC in The Hague said personnel led by Bemba carried out widespread attacks against civilians including “rape, torture, outrages upon personal dignity and pillaging” between October 2002 and March 2003.
“We cannot remove the [victims’] injuries, but we can give them justice,” the ICC prosecutor’s statement added. “The testimony of the victims will be proof enough.”
Bemba, who heads a vast business empire, had lived in exile in Portugal, where he fled under UN protection following a shoot-out with presidential guards last March.
The government of CAR said only that it “noted what the ICC is doing,” preferring to let proceedings run their course.
Bemba went before a Belgian judge on Sunday, who ordered that he remain in detention, a prosecution service spokeswoman said.