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DR Congo top court locks Bemba out of December presidential polls

Jean-Pierre Bemba, who only returned to DR Congo last month with hope of succeeding retiring Joseph Kabila as president of the vast central African state, can never run for the top executive seat again unless a higher court quashes the order

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KINSHASA | The smouldering smoke that has been emenating from Jean Pierre Bemba’s presidential bid in DR Congo shot into real flames Monday as a top court locked him out of the running.

Bemba, a former vice-president of the vast central African country, was widely tipped as one of the leading candidates to replace President Joseph Kabila after the December presidential polls.

But Congolese constitutional court has ruled that the opposition leader is guilty of a witness tampering conviction at the International Criminal Court.

In a judgment broadcast on national television, the constitutional court said the election commission had rightly invalidated Bemba’s candidacy last month, finding that witness tampering is a form of corruption as stipulated in the electoral law.

The December 23 election is due to usher in Congo’s first democratic transition of power after Kabila agreed last month to respect constitutional term limits and step aside in favour of close loyalist Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary’s candidacy.

That announcement has calmed tensions that exploded into deadly street protests when Kabila refused to step aside at the end of his constitutional mandate in December 2016.

But fears persist of further violence with Kabila’s opponents accusing him of trying to rig the vote to ensure Ramazani’s victory.

The political anxiety is now made worse with Bemba’s exclusion from the race, a decision analysts say could spark a violent reaction by his supporters.

His defeat to Kabila in the 2006 election touched off deadly clashes in the capital Kinshasa between his supporters and state troops. He then spent a decade in prison in The Hague before his war crimes convictions for murders and rapes committed by his militia in Central African Republic were quashed in May.

“Congo has fallen very low!” the secretary-general of Bemba’s MLC party wrote on Twitter after the judgment.

Kabila’s camp denies that it is improperly trying to influence the election.

Besides Bemba, opposition leader Moise Katumbi was barred from re-entering Congo last month to register his candidacy after two years in exile.

Katumbi placed joint first in a rare public opinion poll in July with 19% of the vote. Another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, also received 19%, while Bemba placed third with 17%.

Ramazani did not receive enough votes to be included in the results.

The constitutional court also on Monday upheld the invalidation of former prime minister Adolphe Muzito’s candidacy but reinstated another former prime minister Samy Badibanga as a candidate.

Bemba returned home on August 1 after a decade in prison in The Hague. His war crimes convictions at ICC were quashed on appeal in May.

The former vice president and warlord’s return is expected to energize opposition in DR Congo to Kabila, who has been in power since his father’s assassination in 2001 and is barred by constitutional term limits from standing for a new term.

Kabila has refused to commit publicly to not contesting the election. That has kept the country in suspense over whether he will choose someone else to represent his ruling coalition, paving the way for Congo’s first democratic transition, or try to run again and risk a violent backlash.

Since his term of office elapsed two years ago, Kabila has been extending his mandate without elections after his attempt to change the constitution to allow him run for another term was swatted by massive protests.

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