Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba will know on Wednesday “by the latest” whether he will be freed following his acquittal last week on warcrimes charges, the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Tuesday.
Despite predictions of an imminent release, presiding judge Bertram Schmitt told a packed public gallery “a decision on Mr Bemba’s detention will come tomorrow by the latest.”
Bemba was not in court, but his defence lawyers argued that the former rebel leader-turned-politician should be let go “without delay”, telling journalists after Tuesday’s hearing at the ICC that “the message has to be that the case is over.”
The stocky Congolese politician was acquitted on appeal Friday by the Hague-based court, who said he could not be held criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
The surprise decision came after Bemba, 55, had been sentenced unanimously to 18 years in 2016 by ICC trial judges.
It was the longest sentence ever to be handed down by the Hague-based court.
Then, judges found Bemba — nicknamed “Miniature Mobutu” — guilty on five counts of warcrimes and crimes against humanity committed by his private army during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring CAR.
Bemba had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) — a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation — into the DRCongo’s northern neighbour in October 2002 to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Felix Patasse.
The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war.
It was also the first to determine whether a military commander bore responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.
‘No flight risk’
Bemba has been held for the past decade at the ICC’s detention centre, based in a seaside suburb of The Hague.
He remains behind bars, awaiting sentence in a separate case in which he was handed one year in jail and fined 300,000 euros ($350,000) for bribing witnesses during the war crimes trial.
He lost an appeal against that sentence and the ICC is yet to decide on a new jail term, which carries a maximum of five years.
Bemba’s lawyers however argued Tuesday that their client should be provisionally freed.
“Mr Bemba is not a flight risk… and will adhere to all conditions set down by this court for his release,” Melinda Taylor told a three-judge bench.
“There is no legal or objective justification to separate Mr Bemba from his family for one day longer,” she said.
“We therefore request that he be released immediately.”
Prosecutors on Tuesday however urged judges to separate Bemba’s acquittal in the main trial and his conviction in the bribery case, adding that “there is still the possibility that he may abscond” ahead of a sentencing set for July 4.
ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told AFP the judges’ decision on Bemba’s release would most likely be in writing, only after which it would be publicly announced by the ICC.
Legal experts earlier said they expected Bemba to be released on Tuesday, given the time he has already spent in jail.
Bemba is likely to join his family in Belgium as soon as he is freed, his lawyer Peter Haynes told journalists last week.
After Tuesday’s hearing Haynes said Bemba “remained calm” and was awaiting his release.
“I’m pretty sure he’s laid-back whether this happens today or tomorrow or sometime in the future,” Haynes said, adding “a series of diplomatic arrangements still need to be made” before he could be reunited with his Brussels-based family.
It is not yet known whether or when the former Congolese leader planned to return to the vast central African country following his release.
His acquittal came amid mounting tensions in the run-up to scheduled presidential elections on December 23.
Bemba had unsuccessfully opposed President Joseph Kabila in elections in 2006. After his militia clashed violently with government forces in 2007, he was forced out of the DRC but retains a groundswell of support.
Asked whether Bemba had any future political ambitions, Haynes said: “He’s never given up on his political ambitions.”
“His attitude to his current (situation) is very much to take it one step at a time.”