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ICC orders Congo warlord Bemba to stand trial

Former Congolese rebel warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba (L) appears before the global war crimes court in the Hague January 12, 2009. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court on Monday ordered former Congolese rebel warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba to stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape and pillaging.

Prosecutors have accused Bemba of leading rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a campaign of torture, rape and murder in the neighboring Central African Republic. Bemba, who was arrested in Belgium in May 2008, denies all the charges.

Judges at the Hague-based ICC said there was sufficient evidence to try Bemba on two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. But they dismissed three other charges, including torture.

Prosecutors presented evidence to the court in January at a hearing to decide whether Bemba, the highest-profile suspect to date brought before the world’s first permanent war crimes court, should be put on trial.

The charges focus on the period between 2002 and 2003 when Ange-Felix Patasse, president of the Central African Republic at the time, asked Bemba’s Congolese Liberation Movement to put down coup attempts in his country.

The defense counsel for Bemba, who served as a vice-president to Joseph Kabila in the post-war transition after Congo’s 1998-2003 war, argue their client cannot be held responsible for crimes committed by his troops because they were under the “command and control” of Patasse’s government.

The court did not set a date for the trial and said the trial judges would be announced at a later date.

In March, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur, the first issued against a sitting head of state by the court.

Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; Editing by Jon Boyle