Belgian court clears way for Bemba transfer to war crimes court

BRUSSELS (AFP) — A Belgian court on Tuesday cleared the way for former Democratic Republic of Congo rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba to be transferred to The Hague to face war crimes charges.

Belgium's highest court rejected a charge by Bemba's lawyers that the legal procedures followed since his arrest in Brussels in May had been irregular.

Bemba's transfer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has been suspended pending the court decision.

It is now expected to take place within days.

Bemba was arrested in the Belgian capital on May 24 on a warrant from the ICC and faces four charges of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The former Congolese vice president, currently being held at a prison in Brussels, is blamed for a series of rapes and torture said by victims to have been committed by his men between 2002 and 2003, when his forces fought a coup attempt in CAR at the behest of then president Ange-Felix Patasse.

Bemba, 45, heads a vast business empire and had been living in exile in Portugal, where he fled under United Nations protection following a shoot-out with the presidential guard in Congo which killed more than 200 people in March 2007.

That followed defeat to his fierce rival and current Congolese President Joseph Kabila in the 2006 elections.

Earlier in the day his lawyer Aime Kilolo Musamba said Bemba would ask the UN Security Council to suspend his case.

"The Security Council could demand a suspension (of the legal process) for somebody who has done a lot of work for peace," in Congo, the lawyer told AFP on the margins of the court hearing in Brussels, where Bemba is being held.

"Jean-Pierre Bemba has no fear of the ICC. He is totally sure of his innocence," said Kilolo, who said the link between Bemba and the groups responsible for the crimes had not been established, with the militias involved at the time responding to the Central African Republic authorities.

"For us the matter has been politicised. The complaint comes from those close to President Kabila", Fyfy Osambia, an official from Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), said in Brussels.

"We want him to present himself in front of the ICC as a free man, because we know he will be acquitted," she added.