THE HAGUE, July 3 (Reuters) - The International Criminal
Court took custody on Thursday of its highest-profile suspect to
date -- Congolese former rebel warlord and vice-president
Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was arrested in Belgium in May.
The transfer of Bemba, accused of leading Congolese rebels
in a campaign of rape and torture in the Central African
Republic in 2002 and 2003, is a welcome boost to the court after
judges ordered the release of its first suspect on Wednesday.
The decision to halt proceedings against Congolese militia
leader Thomas Lubanga -- who will stay in detention pending a
prosecution appeal -- was seen as a major blow for the world's
first permanent warcrimes court, set up in 2002.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced Bemba's transfer
at a conference to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing
of the court's founding treaty and promised justice for the
victims of "massive sexual violence".
"There will be no impunity," he said. "We cannot bring back
those who were killed or died of AIDS after being violated, but
I am hopeful that we will bring justice for the victims."
Bemba, who was defeated by Joseph Kabila in Democratic
Republic of Congo's (DRC) 2006 presidential election, is being
held at a detention centre near The Hague.
He joins Lubanga and two other alleged Congolese warlords
also indicted by the ICC as well as former Liberian President
Charles Taylor, who is being held in the same prison but tried
by the separate U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The ICC was set up as a permanent successor to the temporary
war crimes tribunals like those for Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the
former Yugoslavia. So far, 106 countries have signed up to the
court, mostly in Europe, Africa and Latin America.
Bemba's is accused of crimes including rape and murder
committed when his MLC insurgents intervened in Central African
Republic. The MLC also fought in Congo's 1998-2003 war and Bemba
served as a vice-president to Kabila in the post-war transition.
Bemba, who has denied the allegations, fled into exile in
Portugal last year saying he feared for his life in Congo. His
fighters had battled in the streets of Kinshasa with Kabila's
presidential guards in clashes that killed several hundred.
Richard Dicker from Human Rights Watch called Bemba's
arrival in The Hague a "terrific moment" for victims in Central
African Republic but said the court should widen its probe.
"It's important for the prosecution to look into allegations
of crimes committed by Mr Bemba in the DRC and to go further up
the chain of command in the DRC to look also into members of the
current government accused of horrific crimes," he said.
The most senior figure to be arrested by the ICC so far,
Bemba's arrival in The Hague comes a day after the prosecution
suffered a major setback when judges ordered Lubanga's release.
Lubanga remains in custody pending a prosecution appeal, but
judges have put his trial -- due to be the new court's first --
on hold as his defence cannot view some evidence that the United
Nations wants to keep confidential to protect its sources.
Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said on Thursday he hoped a
solution could be found in the next couple of weeks so the trial
could finally get under way, while respecting Lubanga's rights.
"I am absolutely confident that there will be justice for
Thomas Lubanga's victims," he said. "The court is building the
foundations of an international criminal justice system and a
fair trial is the cornerstone of that."