He was once found guilty of rape, pillage and murder. But on Wednesday, when Jean-Pierre Bemba landed back in Congo, thousands of people crowded near the airport in Kinshasa to welcome him home.
The former warlord spent a decade at The Hague, where the International Criminal Court convicted him in 2016 of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Then, in an unexpected twist, his 18-year-sentence was thrown out in June after an appeals court determined that he was not responsible for the crimes his troops committed in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003.
Now he is running for president, with elections scheduled for December.
Other candidates include Félix Tshisekedi, whose father, Étienne, was a prominent opposition leader until his death last year, and Moïse Katumbi, a businessman from the southeastern Katanga province who fled Congo in 2016 claiming that police poisoned him. Katumbi initially flew to South Africa for treatment following the alleged attempt on his life, and later sought exile in Europe, but he may fly home to officially file his candidacy before the Aug. 8 deadline.
The current political climate in Congo could be a recipe for disaster. President Joseph Kabila was supposed to step down in 2016, but he has twice postponed elections and remains in office. Although it would violate the constitution if Kabila runs for president again, he has not yet publicly ruled out doing so. In recent years, as people who oppose Kabila have taken to the streets to protest his hold on power, security forces have shot and killed a number of them.
Bemba, who served as vice president of Congo during an earlier transitional government, lost the 2006 election against Kabila and fled Congo in 2007 after troops loyal to him clashed with the military and the government accused him of treason. In 2008, Bemba was arrested in Belgium and brought to The Hague to face charges related to the behavior of his forces, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, who went to the Central African Republic in 2002 to support then-President Ange-Félix Patassé.
Bemba had a number of his convictions thrown out in June after an appeals court determined he was "erroneously convicted ... for specific criminal acts that were outside the scope of the charges as confirmed." He is still fighting to overturn a conviction that he tampered with witnesses at The Hague.
After his conviction in 2016, Human Rights Watch called Bemba's sentencing "both a victory for sexual violence victims and a stark warning to senior commanders who turn a blind eye while their troops rape and commit other atrocities." His early release came as a disappointment to prosecutors and activists who had originally pointed to his conviction as proof that the court in The Hague was capable of serving justice for victims of rape in war. His trial had included testimony from more than 5,200 victims.