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Congolese party picks former warlord Bemba as its presidential candidate

Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted of war crimes by ICC in June. He had earlier been convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail amid protests from his supporters back home

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AFP–Former DR Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba has been named by his party as a candidate in presidential polls planned for December.

Bemba, a former warlord who was acquitted of war crimes by The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), was Friday picked by his party Movement for the Liberation of the Congo as its official flag bearer.

“We unanimously decided to renew Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo as national president of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo for a five-year term and to name him as our candidate for the presidential election of December 23, 2018,” said the party’s Jean Jacques Mamba.

Earlier this week, Congolese government said Bemba could apply for a diplomatic passport to return home after he was acquitted of war crimes in The Hague.

The DR Congo is in the grip of a crisis over the future of President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since 2001 when he succeeded his assassinated father Laurent Kabila and has remained in office, despite a two-term constitutional limit that expired in December 2016.

He has remained in power under a constitutional clause that enables a president to stay in office until their successor is elected.

Bemba’s party named him as their candidate at a congress in Kinshasa.

Bemba acquittal

On June 8, judges at ICC overturned a 2016 conviction against Bemba for five counts of war crimes committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

They said he could not be held criminally liable for atrocities they committed, which included murder, rape and looting, as he was unable to influence their conduct.

He had been given an 18-year term, the longest ever to be handed down by the court.

Bemba was earlier this week known to be in Belgium having gained an interim release from the court.

The ICC is due to issue a ruling in a separate case in which he was sentenced to a one-year in jail and fined $350,000 in 2017 for bribing witnesses during his main war crimes trial.

However, he has already spent a decade behind bars, and legal experts expect him to be released definitively if this time is taken into account.

It remains unclear whether he faces any threat of prosecution if he sets foot on DRC soil, after authorities issued a warrant in 2007 against him over the violence and for alleged arson at the Supreme Court.

Political crisis

DR Congo has been facing a political crisis since Kabila’s second and final constitutional mandate ended in 2016. Initially, Kabila tried to change the constitution to allow him to extend his rule but violence flared in the country with mass protests, forcing him to back down.

But not to submit to the constitution as he has since been hanging in there despite protests in Kinshasa as the people asked him to step down to allow his succession to proceed.

Kabila has postponed elections more than three times already but it is understood he will have no option but to allow the polls to proceed in December.

Western powers have accepted the delay with reluctance, hoping it will avoid bloodshed in the volatile and forever restless central African state.

For the succession besides Bemba, √Čtienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the main opposition party, died in 2017 ending decades of his challenge to the presidency.

The other contender is exiled Moise Katumbi, a vastly wealthy man widely regarded as the new opposition leader since the death of Tshisekedi. Katumbi launched his Together for Change party in South Africa in March.

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