The International Criminal Court has sentenced former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years for murders, rapes and pillaging committed by his troops in the Central African Republic more than a decade ago.
The verdicts announced on Tuesday focused on the actions of his troops, as Bemba commanded a private army of 1,500 men who intervened in the neighbouring Central African Republic's civil war.
"The chamber sentences Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to a total of 18 years of imprisonment," said judge Sylvia Steiner, ruling that the former militia leader had failed to exercise control over his private army sent into the Central African Republic in late October 2002 where they carried out "sadistic" rapes, murders and pillaging of "particular cruelty".
Fadi El Abdullah, a spokesman for the ICC told Al Jazeera the ruling was "important for the victims" and "the first time they would see justice for the crimes they suffered from".
Prosecutors at the ICC had called for a minimum 25-year jail term in the landmark case, the first to focus on rape as a weapon of war by the ICC, which was set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes.
Bemba was convicted in March on two counts of crimes against humanity as well as three counts of war crimes.
His arrest in 2008 came as a surprise both to Bemba and his supporters and opponents at home. He had been living in semi-exile in Europe for several years when prosecutors sprung a trap by issuing an arrest warrant during a visit to Belgium, Congo's former colonial master.
His forces the Movement for the Liberation of Congo militia (MLC) had deliberately targeted civilians as part of a "modus operandi" as they sought to halt the coup bid against the Central African Republic's then-president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Men, women and children were all raped - in one case three generations of the same family were gang-raped by MLC soldiers who held them at gunpoint and forced relatives to watch.
Holly Dranginis, Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project: "Bemba’s sentencing decision will impact communities all over central Africa, and the future of international criminal trials. It is historic on a few levels, this was the first time the court decided an appropriate punishment for gender-based violence -- in this case, brutal rapes committed by Bemba's troops against women and children. Bemba is also the highest-level official the court has ever sentenced, helping pave a path for the court to prosecute more government officials who oversee abuses by their troops. The hope is that with each new condemnation, the ICC can gradually extinguish the climate of impunity that still prevails for grave crimes, especially by official state actors, and especially against women."
Nathalia Dukhan, Field Researcher and Analyst for the Enough Project: "Today's verdict represents a real hope for many war victims seeking justice, particularly in countries experiencing long-lasting conflicts that are failing to address impunity. For many Central Africans, this verdict is only partial and leaves justice unfinished. Warlords involved in the 2002- 2003 coup in CAR who have not been convicted by the ICC have backslided in the 2013 crisis, leaving thousands of new victims behind."