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Monday, August 30, 2010

Ex-Congo VP says he lacks funds for a fair trial

Lawyers for former Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba complained to the International Criminal Court on Monday they cannot conduct a fair defense because prosecutors have seized his assets.
Bemba is charged with five counts of murder, rape and pillage for allegedly commanding a militia responsible for atrocities in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. He has not entered a plea.

Judges held a brief hearing to help determine a date for the start of the trial. The prosecution recommended a date in October or November, while the defense said it would leave the date to the judges' discretion. Bemba has been in custody for more than two years.

Defense attorney Nkwebe Liriss said the prosecution's seizure of Bemba's assets meant he had to ask for a loan from the court's registry, but the amount granted did not cover legal fees or the costs of investigations.

At the same time, the court ruled that Bemba was not indigent, Liriss said, and therefore not entitled to full funding. He said the situation defied the judicial principle of "equality of arms," or of equal access to resources by the defense and prosecution.

Another interim hearing was scheduled for Sept. 15.

The start of Bemba's trial already has been delayed twice after he challenged the case's admissibility at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. Appeals judges have not yet ruled on the challenge, but say the trial can start.

Bemba is the most senior political figure in the court's custody. He ruled a vast chunk of northeastern Congo during that country's 1998-2002 war, with support from neighboring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of the country's four vice presidents in a reunited Congo.

Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the court in The Hague in July 2008.

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