The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sentenced Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president and rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for bribing witnesses during his war crimes trial.
In a ruling on Monday, The Hague-based court handed Bemba a 12 month sentence and a 300,000 euros ($350,000) fine for tampering with witnesses in an earlier hearing over possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by fighters he sent to suppress a coup in neighbouring Central African Republic between October 2002 and 2003.
ICC Judge Bertram Schmitt said the ruling would provide a “cautionary example as to what consequences obstructing the administration of justice can have”.
“Mr. Bemba’s acquittal in the main case should have been the end of his exposure to the court, yet he continues to have the spectre of this institution hanging over him,” Schmitt said.
He will not return to jail because of the sentence, having served time after being found guilty following the war crimes case in 2016. Bemba, who had been in ICC detention since 2008, was acquitted on appeal in June.
After a decade in prison, Bemba returned to the DRC on August 1 to submit his candidacy for the country’s December 23 presidential election.
But the 55-year-old, a popular opposition leader, was barred on September 3 from standing because of the conviction for witness tampering.
According to DRC law, those found guilty of corruption are prohibited from running for president.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Brussels, said it was “very unclear” what action Bemba will take following the ruling.
“Bemba could well get on a plane and go back to Kinshasa [the DRC’s capital], in theory there is nothing to stop him from doing that,” Barker said.
“He has hoped ever since the initial charges against him were quashed in June that he was going to be able to launch a presidential campaign to be able to one day lead the country.”
In a rare opinion poll of potential candidates published by the Congo Research Group in late July, Bemba ranked joint-first alongside fellow opposition politicians Felix Tshisekedi and Moise Katumbi.
Katumbi has also been effectively barred from running, however, after the DRC’s authorities prevented his return to the country from a self-imposed exile following a 2016 conviction in absentia for alleged real estate fraud.
Reuben Loffman, a lecturer in African history at UK-based Queen Mary University of London, said Bemba “must back Tshisekedi … as a divided opposition opens the door for Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary“, the anointed candidate of incumbent President Joseph Kabila‘s ruling coalition.
“There is always a chance he [Bemba] could get on the ticket. But overall I think it is very unlikely the CENI [electoral commission] would have a change of heart,” Loffman told Al Jazeera.
Kabila took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila. He was declared the winner of elections in 2006 and 2011 that were marred by violence and opposition allegations of widespread fraud.
In August, following months of speculation, Kabila announced he would not seek re-election in the presidential poll, scheduled to take place two years after his second and final constitutional term officially expired.
The DRC’s election commission is expected to publish a final list of candidates for the election on September 19.