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DRC: Bemba's return raises fresh hope for change ahead of Dec poll

The Hague

Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba whose war crimes convictions were quashed in May is set to return to the country on Wednesday and even before his arrival, his supporters are expressing hope.

His homecoming after serving a decade in prison at The Hague could dramatically shake up Congolese politics ahead of December’s long-delayed election, which is meant to choose a successor to Joseph Kabila. Here in the Gemena region, Bemba is being seen as a liberator.

Emilie Mboli, Federal Vice President of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo says: “Bemba’s arrival in the DRC shows that the country is saved, we need his presence to get the country back on its feet. We know all is not lost as we wait for our liberating Moses to deliver this country so we can live well in joy.”

“Bemba’s arrival will spark fresh hope in the DRC for change in our country, which is a joy to the people of this country,” adds Jeanne Walenga.

Bemba has promised file his candidacy for the December election. The registration period opens this Wednesday and runs through August 8.

Bemba finished runner-up to Kabila in the 2006 election and commands a large and loyal following in western Congo. Despite still being in prison at the time, Bemba came third in a rare nationwide opinion poll in March behind two other opposition leaders.

“He is going to return on Aug. 1,” the secretary-general of his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) party, Eve Bazaiba, told Reuters. “Everything is in order.”

The ICC quashed Bemba’s convictions in May related to murder, rape and pillage by fighters he sent to Central African Republic to back the country’s then-president Ange-Felix Patasse. An appeals court ruled that Bemba could not be held personally responsible for those crimes.

Bemba was one of only four people convicted by the permanent war crimes court in its 16 years of operation, and the highest ranking among them.

Kabila’s government moved quickly to provide Bemba a passport after his release from prison last month but has offered mixed messages about whether he might face further criminal prosecution or be allowed to contest the presidential election.

He still faces sentencing for a witness tampering charge by the ICC but has likely already served enough prison time for that.