The International Criminal Court on Tuesday sentenced Congolese former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in prison for murders, rapes and acts of pillaging committed by his troops in the neighboring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said that Bemba will get credit for the eight years he has already spent in ICC detention since his arrest in May 2008.
Bemba, a former Congolese senator and vice president, was the commander of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo when he was asked in 2002 and 2003 to send troops by CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Human Rights Watch said the ruling offered "a measure of justice for victims of sexual violence and other grave crimes in the Central African Republic where armed groups have preyed on civilians with total impunity for more than a decade".
"Other commanders should take notice that they, too, can be held accountable for rapes and other serious abuses committed by troops under their control," said Geraldine Mattioli Zeltner of HRW.
The sentence is the highest yet passed by the ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court which has previously handed down sentences of 12 and 14 years in prison for two other Congolese militia leaders. The maximum sentence the judges can hand down is life in prison.
Bemba is also the highest-level official the court has ever sentenced, which could help pave the way for prosecutions of more government officials who oversee abuses by their troops, said Holly Dranginis, senior policy analyst at the Enough Project watchdog.
At the time of his conviction in March, Steiner said women, girls and men were targeted by Bemba's forces, often with multiple soldiers raping women and girls in front of other family members.
In one incident, a man's wife was gang raped and when he protested he, too, was raped at gunpoint.
Bemba was convicted even though he spent much of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The court said he was able to communicate with his troops using radios and satellite and mobile phones and also saw reports of their grave crimes in the media.
What little action Bemba took to prevent or punish crimes by his forces was grossly inadequate, Steiner said.