Bemba to return to DRC Aug 1 ahead of polls

Former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, acquitted last month of war crimes, will return to the country on August 1 ahead of end-year elections, his party announced on Monday.

"The Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) has the signal honour to announce that it has pleased our lord God, after 10 years away, to allow the return of Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba Gomba to his country of birth, the land of his ancestors, the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, August 1," the party said in a statement.

"The MLC invites the Congolese people, especially the Kinois (Kinshasa inhabitants) to give him a warm, peaceful and enthusiastic welcome," it added.

The MLC on Friday named Bemba its candidate for planned December 23 presidential polls after the government said he could apply for a diplomatic passport to return home after he was acquitted of war crimes in The Hague.

The DRC is in the grip of a crisis over the future of President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001 and has remained in office despite a two-term constitutional limit that expired in December 2016.

He claims he can do this under a clause in the constitution that enables a president to stay in office until a successor is elected.

In June, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague overturned a 2016 conviction against Bemba on five counts of war crimes committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

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

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

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 Bemba was sentenced to 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.

Kabila, who took over from his assassinated father in 2001, presides over the vast central African nation with a history of corruption, poor governance and armed conflict.

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