International Criminal Court judges on Tuesday ordered the interim release of former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, days after he was acquitted on appeal of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Bemba was acquitted Friday and his 18-year sentence was overturned, but he remained in custody because he is awaiting a final sentencing in another case in which he was convicted of interfering with witnesses.
Noting that Bemba already has served more than 80 percent of the maximum five-year sentence he faces in the witness tampering case, judges ruled that it was “disproportionate to further detain Mr. Bemba merely to ensure his appearance for sentencing,” the court said in a statement.
It was not clear exactly when he would be freed from the court’s detention unit.
The decision came after Bemba’s lawyer urged judges to release him while he awaits a final ruling on the sentence.
Bemba was originally sentenced to one year for the witness tampering conviction. That conviction was upheld on appeal and judges were ordered to impose a new sentence. As the original indictment was in November 2013, Bemba could still face a few months’ prison time with the maximum sentence.
“We respectfully submit that there is no legal or objective justification to separate Mr. Bemba from his family for one day further,” lawyer Melinda Taylor told judges. “We therefore request that he be immediately released to Belgium.”
Prosecutors, however, warned that there was still a risk that Bemba could abscond if released and urged judges to keep him detained until a hearing on his final sentence, which has been set for July 4. Prosecutors want Bemba sentenced to the maximum five years.
Bemba was found guilty in 2016 as a military commander of two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for a campaign of murder, rape and pillaging by his troops, known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
But in a 3-2 majority ruling, appeals judges said Friday that the trial chamber “erred in its evaluation of Mr. Bemba’s motivation and the measures that he could have taken in light of the limitations he faced in investigating and prosecuting crimes as a remote commander sending troops to a foreign country.”
His defense lawyer in that case, Peter Haynes, said earlier he would consider it “very unusual” if judges did not free Bemba.
“I think the message has to be this case is over now; it’s time for everybody to let it go,” Haynes said.