“They tied up my younger sister, whipped her and raped her,” says Ghislain Bertrand Bouanga, recalling the day when former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba’s brutal militia raided his home.
“She has been disabled ever since. Her arms don’t work because they tied her up so tightly. She spent a year in hospital, she was bleeding because of the rape.”
Bouanga’s sister is a victim of a five-month rampage of rape, murder and looting in the Central African Republic carried out by Bemba’s private army in 2002 and 2003. His mother and two other sisters were killed.
Bemba had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) — a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation — into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northern neighbor to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
On Friday, he won an appeal against a conviction for war crimes handed down by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which had sentenced him to a 18 years in jail.
Judges ruled Bemba, who in 2003 became a vice president in DRC’s transitional government, could not be held criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops.
The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war and the sentence that it had handed down in 2016 was unprecedented.
“When Bemba’s troops arrived at our home, near the site of Begoua school, they raped my daughter,” said Marie, not her real name, in a trembling voice, her fingers scrabbling compulsively at her arm.
“I started to weep and others arrived and raped me. When my husband intervened they killed him.”
But she harbors no anger against the ICC or Bemba himself. She blames the troops for the atrocities.
The ICC’s appeal judges on Friday declared that Bemba, who was in the DRC at the time of the atrocities, had “limited… ability to investigate and punish crimes” by his men.