Congo opposition leader Bemba expected home in July

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose war crimes convictions were quashed last month, is expected to return to Congo next month for a party congress to select a candidate for December’s presidential vote, a party spokesman said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Michael Kooren/File Photo

His return to Democratic Republic of Congo could dramatically shake up the political landscape ahead of the election, which is meant to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who has held power since 2001.

Kabila, however, has not yet ruled out trying to circumvent term limits to stand again, keeping the country in suspense ahead of what would be its first democratic transition of power.

Bemba, a former rebel leader and vice president, left Congo in 2007 and spent the last 10 years in prison in The Hague. He is currently free in Belgium pending a hearing related to a separate conviction for witness tampering. [nL8N1TE2G9]

Given that the maximum sentence on the witness tampering charge before the International Criminal Court is five years in prison, Bemba should be formally released some time after that hearing.

“In principle, Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba Gomba will return to the country in July,” the spokesman for his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) party, Michel Koyakpa, told Reuters.

“This will first of all be to participate in the MLC congress, which will take place July 12-13 in Kinshasa,” Koyakpa said, adding that Bemba would submit his candidacy for president later in July if selected as the party’s nominee.

The government has said that Bemba has the right to return home but has offered mixed messages about whether he might face further criminal prosecution or be allowed to contest the presidential election.

Bemba is popular in western Congo and his return could give a jolt to a largely moribund opposition. But it could also further divide Kabila’s opponents, several of whom are angling to succeed him.

Bemba came third in a rare nationwide opinion poll by New York University’s Congo Research Group in March, behind opposition leaders Moise Katumbi, who is in exile in Europe due to myriad legal problems at home, and Felix Tshisekedi, the president of Congo’s largest opposition party.

If Kabila does not try to stand himself, he is expected to annoint a successor to represent the ruling PPRD party. That person would benefit from the party’s significant war chest and ties to state institutions.

Bemba finished runner-up to Kabila in a 2006 election that his supporters said was marred by fraud, triggering battles in the streets of Kinshasa between his militamen and state security forces.

Reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg/Keith Weir