THE HAGUE, Netherlands – An appeals panel at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday rejected former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba's bid to have rape, murder and pillage charges against him dismissed.
Bemba is accused of commanding a militia responsible for atrocities in the neighboring Central African Republic in 2002-2003. He argued the charges were inadmissible because authorities in the Central African Republic had investigated the allegations and decided not to prosecute him.
The International Court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, is a court of last resort. It cannot prosecute suspects if legal authorities in their home country already have convicted them or investigated and decided not to file charges.
However, appeals judge Anita Usacka rejected Bemba's arguments, saying the Central African Republic's highest court overturned a 2004 decision to dismiss charges against Bemba and correctly referred the case to the International Criminal Court.
"The appeals chamber confirms the impugned decision and dismisses the appeal," said Usacka, who is from Latvia.
The decision clears the last hurdle to Bemba's trial, likely to start later this year.
Bemba has not yet entered pleas to two counts of crimes against humanity and three of war crimes.
He is accused of commanding the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, which fought alongside forces of then-Central African Republic President Ange-Feliz Patasse against rebels led by the country's former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.
Bozize won the conflict and replaced Patasse as president in 2003. During that fighting, Bemba was not yet a vice president in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire.
Prosecutors allege that Bemba's fighters committed widespread crimes against civilians, including murder, rape and looting their homes.
Bemba is the most senior political figure of any country in the court's custody. He ruled a large part of northeastern Congo during that country's 1998-2002 war, with support from neighboring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of the country's four vice presidents in a reunited Congo.
Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the court in The Hague in July 2008.