Former Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo enters the International Criminal Court on Monday. (Pool photo by Jerry Lampen/Via EPA)

The International Criminal Court broke new ground Monday by adding rape to a war-crimes conviction, finding the former vice president of Congo guilty of abuses — including sexual crimes — in connection with a militia intervention in the neighboring Central African Republic.

It was the first time the Netherlands-based court has convicted anyone of sexual violence since it was launched in 2002, raising the possibility of future prosecutions that include accusations of rape and related abuses as elements of war.

“The judgment sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.

The former vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was convicted of crimes carried out in the Central African Republic from 2002 to 2003 by the Movement for Liberation of Congo, a rebel faction that provided cross-border aid to its neighbor’s leader.

According to the ruling, Bemba knowingly permitted his troops to commit horrific acts including sexual abuse — against both women and men — after dispatching them to help the Central African Republic’s president, Ange-Félix Patassé, quash a coup.

“[Movement for Liberation of Congo] soldiers directed a widespread attack against the civilian population in the Central African Republic throughout the period of the charges. MLC soldiers committed many acts of pillaging, rape, and murder against civilians,” the court wrote.

Through the years-long ICC trial at The Hague, Bemba tried to distance himself from the allegations, maintaining his innocence. But in Monday’s landmark ruling, the court placed the blame squarely on the former official, saying he was “criminally responsible.”

The formal conviction was for “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” He was ordered to remain in detention until sentencing at a later date. Bemba showed no emotion.

The ICC has been criticized for its slowness and missteps in early trials, but the latest ruling looks to embolden the court at a critical time, with several other key cases still to be heard.

The conviction of Bemba also showed the court’s willingness to hold commanders responsible for the crimes of their subordinates – a link some questioned the court would make.

The ruling “shines a spotlight on the use of rape as a weapon of war,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “There is still a profound need for justice for these crimes and other atrocities in both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Bemba spent much of his life in Belgium, where he studied economics at the Institut Catholique des Hautes Études Commerciales. He worked in telecommunications in his home country before entering politics.

The MLC, which received funding from Uganda, sought to overthrow Congo’s government in 1998, and held de facto control over northern Congo. Some of its members later became part of the government.

In the Central African Republic, Bemba dispatched his forces in a five-month conflict marked by rights abuses. According to the prosecution, Bemba instructed his men to attack civilians, allegedly telling them: “Anyone you encounter in the combat zone will be an enemy because I received information that the enemy is wearing civilian clothing.”

“MLC soldiers searched ‘house-to-house’ for remaining rebels, raping civilians, pillaging their belongings, and, on some occasions, killing those who resisted,” the court ruling said.

Criticism of the ICC has been strongest in Africa, with its first nine cases all involving alleged crimes on the continent.

The African Union has accused the court of “hunting” Africans. But legal experts and human rights advocates maintained that Monday’s decision was a step in the right direction, particularly as sexual violence continues to play a major role in many conflicts around the world.

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